CBS News' site undergoes reorganization and a redesign, and proves it was for the best as it wins two major awards. Now its director of news and operations is setting his sights on getting more traffic.
When most Americans go online for mainstream breaking news, they think of MSNBC.com, CNN.com, FoxNews.com -- or perhaps a newspaper site such as NYTimes.com or USAToday.com. But what about CBS? On the Web, people tend to think of CBS in the context of CBS MarketWatch or perhaps CBS Sportsline, but CBS News? It's long been missing in action.
But in recent years, the old-line broadcaster with the legendary eye symbol has started to make a slow and steady run online. CBS News on the Web began life under the CBS.com address in January 1998, went through a couple rounds of downsizing in 2000 and 2001 (after being under the Viacom Interactive Ventures wing), and finally found its footing as CBSNews.com (with on-air promotion) in May 2002. In the past year, the site has become a real 24-hour news operation with a boost in back-end technology and a clean redesign -- but with a small editorial staff.
And the site was richly rewarded for its efforts: CBSNews.com nabbed the 2003 EPpy Award for "Best Overall Network TV/Cable-Affiliated Internet Service" last May, and won the prestigious Edward R. Murrow Award for best TV network site from the Radio-Television News Directors Association in June.
"I guess that 'the house that Murrow built' has been re-wired for broadband," quipped Michael Sims, CBSNews.com's director of news and operations, in a release about the Murrow award. Sims, 48, has been at the helm of the online news operation through thick and thin, since 1999, after a stint as a producer at CBS' Newspath service, and a background in local TV and radio in Oklahoma City.
Sims admitted that his site had a late start on the competition, but he thinks CBS' conservative online approach (thinking bottom-line at the outset) could pay dividends in the long run. Already he has the award hardware to prove his staff's mettle, and the site's traffic doubled in 2002. Still, CBSNews.com only ranked No. 19 in the Nielsen//NetRatings' Top 20 Current Events & Global News sites (just below the BBC) for June. Plus, Sims said that his staff doesn't do a lot of original reporting, making them masters of repackaging and interactive features.
We chatted recently about the site's history, the public perception of CBS as left-leaning, and Sims' grand plan for catching his rivals.
Mark Glaser: Why did the site get a late start versus the other networks?
Michael Sims: I think the company wanted to take a conservative (fiscal) approach. We all know what happened in the late '90s when everybody was going to make a fortune, everybody was going to do an IPO. All of the networks and everyone else was going to have their own digital units and make gazillions of dollars. [CBS] took a more cautious approach and said, "No, no, no. Let's operate our Web sites like real businesses."
You have to have a business plan. You have to be in the black. This unit is not any different than the rest of CBS in that we have to be in the black. So no five years or 10 years in the red trying to build the business. That meant we couldn't spend a ton on infrastructure or staff. It's going to be a slow, measured approach.
MG: So you've been in the black since the start?
MS: We were cash-flow positive last year, and expect to be this year. I wouldn't say from the start. There was a period of reorganization in 2000. In 2000, 2001, we were getting our hands around the reality of the Internet. CBSNews.com editorially answers to the CBS News division. CBS.com answers to the CBS entertainment division. However, the two sides roll up into one unit with the CBS network financially. We have the same sales staff, the same administration, the same ad trafficking.
MG: How has your site changed in the past year?
MS: The biggest thing we've been able to do is rebuild our technology, which allows our news producers and designers to accomplish what they've always wanted to accomplish, but couldn't prior to last year. The restrictions with a template and database production system were so onerous, that it was darn near impossible to do, because of the technology. We went out and researched a number of companies that provide content management and production systems, but none of them did what we wanted them to do.
So the technology staff at CBS built one from scratch. We had producers from our team work with them and say, "This is what the system needs to do. We need to be flexible so when there's breaking news, we can change the pages this way. And we need to be able to publish every five minutes. And we need all these assets -- the story, the audio, the video, the still picture, the photo essay -- to work together. The CBS team built the system based on the specs from our producers. Once we launched that system, we had the flexibility to decide how we wanted to display the news. We were using the technology instead of the technology leading us -- that was the biggest change.
MG: Is it a challenge to work on everything around the clock with such a small staff?
MS: Sure it's a challenge. I think that our staff does a tremendous job. And I'd put our content and our presentation against anybody out there -- even the Web sites that have many times the staff that we do. Sure, I'd like to have more people, but I also want to operate a business that's fiscally sound and will still be here. I'm very proud of what we've done both fiscally and what our staff has been able to accomplish.
MG: What do you think led to the awards you recently received?
MS: When we changed the technology, we changed the design of the site. We've redesigned the home page a couple times since then. We developed specific home pages for use in major news stories. When we did the 9/11 anniversary a year ago, we had a home page specifically designed for that day, and it still pulled in all of the elements from the database and displayed them the way we wanted them to. For the Iraq War, we had a home page designed and built so that when the first bombs hit, we switched it in five minutes.
I think design has a lot to do with [the awards], and presentation and functionality, and being able to take from the great journalism of CBS News. We're completely integrated into the organization. I go to the "Evening News" planning meeting every morning. I have producers who go to "The Early Show" planning meetings twice a day. I have producers who go to the "48 Hours," "60 Minutes" and "60 Minutes II" meetings. So we know what they're doing, we get incredible cooperation from not just the producers of the broadcast, but from the correspondents and producers in the field.
One of the challenges of a smaller staff is how do you cover a big story when it breaks. One of the conscious decisions we made a couple years ago was to produce interactive boxes that could be used on a variety of subjects -- whether it's about West Nile, or AIDS, or transplants, or the war, or whatever. We build them fairly non-dated, so when something breaks, we have instant assets to put into a story. We publish every five minutes so we call ourselves "all-news radio meets Time magazine."
MG: Has your involvement, going to the "Evening News" meetings, been a recent development?
MS: It started in early 2000. But it really began in Campaign 2000 and being involved in that situation. For the Iraq War, CBS News had a "war desk," which was one set of desks in the main newsroom, where everything came into and went out of regarding the war worldwide. And the guy or gal who was writing my main story at any given time on the war was sitting right at that desk right next to these people. So that's how integrated we are in the system.
MG: How have your ratings been over the past year, as far as ranked against other network sites?
MS: Our rank has not improved. Traffic has grown, but if you look at the graphs for all the major sites, they're all about the same. We have not really changed our ranking. On occasion, if we have a major story, that will change. Or during the war, there was a ton of traffic. But we have not gained on the big guys like I would like to.
MG: Do you have a game plan to try to do that?
MS: Yeah, we're working on one. We know where we think we're deficient, and we're working on it. We've done a very good job of on-air-to-online promotion, but we probably have not done as well with online-to-online promotion. That is, getting people who were already on the Internet, and exposing them to CBS News wherever they happen to be. That's something we'll look more seriously at.
MG: With the awards and higher traffic, did you start to get more attention from people higher up on the food chain at CBS News?
MS: I would say no, because I see the president of CBS News [Andrew Heyward] every day, and we talk and we exchange e-mails. He subscribes to all my e-mail products, and if he's got a suggestion -- or even if we have a typo -- he'll respond. With the bosses, it hasn't improved because it's already been excellent. I think where it has improved is with some of the old-school news division people in the field. They understand what the Murrow [award] is, and now that we've won it, it's like, "Oh, these guys do know what they're doing." With some of the journalists, it's certainly opened their eyes.
MG: Do you feel you're at a disadvantage not having a 24-hour TV news adjunct?
MS: Yeah, I think so. That's certainly benefited those sites [like MSNBC, CNN]. You get those hard-core news junkies that are on the cable news sites all day, and they're pounding home their URLs all day long. It has to put them at an advantage.
MG: Have you looked at pay services, such as pay video?
MS: We have, and we'll continue to. We're running a business here, but we're trying to serve the public. CNN has taken video that you could watch on TV free, they've taken that behind the [paid-only] wall. ABCNews.com has done the same thing. MSNBC is still free but their maximum bit rate is 100K. So we're the only ones out there providing free broadband-quality video of the news of the day. We're encoding 30-something clips a day. We do more when there's more going on.
I would like to see, for the news of the day, that it would be advertiser-supported. As a journalist, I would hate to put the hard news of the day behind the wall. Especially the stuff that you can see free [on TV]. Whether or not we can do that remains to be seen. That does not preclude me from down the road having some kind of enhanced service for subscription. If there's something we could give for a second tier of service, for an expanded offering, I think we should look at that.
MG: What do you see as one of your advantages over other news sites?
MS: For the consumer, it's the free broadband video. You go to our video page, and you've got the day's news and it's current, it's now, it's high quality and it's free. The other guys don't have that. Also, because we're small and scrappy -- for lack of a better term -- we can turn quicker and easier. I can redesign my home page in a day, if I needed to. When there's breaking news, I think that we have an outstanding system to have it on the site within three minutes. We regularly beat the other guys with having stuff up on our site, and I don't know why. I think we can turn the battleship a little easier.
MG: Does it mean much to have something a few minutes before the competition?
MS: No, it doesn't mean anything to have it over the other guy. It means everything to have it when people come to the site. You're getting hundreds of connections per second to the site, and when something starts to buzz or break, even before people get their breaking news [e-mail] alerts. If it's up on cable, and people in an office are starting to talk, we see our bandwidth charts shoot up instantly. So if somebody goes to our site and it's not there, they are going to go somewhere else. Sure, in the newsroom, it's great to say we beat the other guys. But it's getting it up on the site [that really matters].
MG: You have experience in TV, so how do you see content being different online? Seems like there's more borderline material making it online these days.
MS: We have a different audience than CBS News broadcasts. Our demographic is younger, with a higher income. They get their news from the Internet so they want to see a wider variety. Plus, we have an infinite number of pages, and what has to make it into a broadcast is so confined by that amount of time. With broadcast at any network, you have to give the most important news to the largest number of viewers. But on an Internet site, people can pick and choose. You can give them a variety. Our mission is still to deliver the hard news of the day, but you can provide something they might not have seen elsewhere.
We're not going to sacrifice the hard news that is our mission to do those quirkier or weird or interesting or water-cooler stories, but they certainly have a place. Everybody can go to any of the sites to see the Liberia story. Fine, we're going to devote most of our attention to that because it's the most important story of the day. But we're also going to have some of these bizarre things up there that people may not have seen on our competition.
MG: How popular are those wacky features, "Caught on Tape," and "The Odd Truth"?
MS: Extremely popular. They always do well. OK, I wouldn't say always, but 99.999 percent of the time, they do very well, because it's something people haven't seen somewhere else.
MG: Maybe you need to have someone with a tabloid journalism background working for you?
MS: We have people in this newsroom who started in television, or that started at a newspaper. We have younger people who started on the Internet. We have a diverse group of people. You don't have to have someone from the tabloid background. You just look at it and go, "That's kind of bizarre." And you think, if I'm interested in this, I'm guessing other people are. You just try to think about it from the reader's perspective.
MG: Do you get a lot of reader feedback saying CBS is more left of center politically?
MS: Of course. Like the broadcast, we get a fair amount of that. But we get both. We consistently get the e-mail of, "You know, you're left of center." That's a given. Most of that's driven by talk radio; a lot of it you get almost exactly the same e-mail. Or at least the same sentences and thoughts from a lot of people in one afternoon, so you figure it's coming from somewhere. It's really interesting the last few months, it's been very, very split. I read a ton of e-mail saying, "You're trashing the Bush administration; support the president." And the very next one is, "How can you let the president get by unchallenged? You're traitors for not challenging the president!"
MG: What does CBS anchor Dan Rather think about the site?
MS: Last time he was over here, we spent about a half-hour shooting the breeze. I'm not going to speak for him and what he thinks about the site, but we have talked about it, and he's been supportive and continues to be. The "Evening News" has been terrific, they look for opportunities of expanding the television story onto the Web, whether it's additional information or supporting documents.
A good example is a report last Wednesday on the 1962 Vatican document dealing with how priests should handle sexual abuse. "CBS Evening News" broke the story, and the correspondent had additional quotes he couldn't get into the TV story for time reasons. He made sure we had them well in advance, he made sure we had the actual documents in advance, and we PDF'ed them for the site. So people could come and read it for themselves.
MG: Does having the CBS brand name give you an advantage?
MS: Absolutely. You look at Yahoo News and Google News -- there's a lot of what I'd call generic news out there. Those sites do a lot better than we do [with traffic]. But so much is just "Joe Friday" wire copy, and people come to our site for something extra. They trust the CBS News brand, they know they're going to get a little something extra, something they're not going to get from the APs or Reuters of the world.
MG: Your staff isn't doing a lot of original reporting, or gathering facts. Is that something you'd like to get into?
MS: I would. But we have this wonderful news-gathering organization. The same correspondents out doing the same story for television is already doing it for radio, and is providing stuff for the Internet. So I'm not sure we need to do that much original reporting because we have this great news organization. One of the things we're trying to teach the people in the field is that -- and this comes from Andrew Heyward, the [CBS News] president -- you're not just a TV correspondent, or you're not just a TV producer. Your responsibilities include network radio and Internet.
These people out there are representing us, and are reporting material for us.... They can really take it further on the Web.