News of the departure of Merrill Brown as editor in chief of MSNBC.com hadn't been on my list of events to expect this week. But when I heard about it, I realized the element of shock was missing. In a way, the real surprise about his decision isn?t that he?s leaving but that he stayed this long. After all, his six years at MSNBC.com broke a personal record for length of time in one job. It?s not that he can?t keep a job; as he explained in a lengthy telephone interview, he likes the ?new and different.? Brown is an innovator, and they aren?t known for running in place.
He had already lasted through multiple phases at MSNBC.com -- the planning, the launch, the go-go years, the advertising slump. He did what few people thought could be done: created a credible and respected news organization with Microsoft as a parent. The site has won just about every significant award online journalism offers and has topped the charts as the number one news and information site numerous times. MSNBC.com has its own gossip columnist but it also had the first ombudsman.
His efforts didn?t stop in his own Redmond, Wash., newsroom but spread far across the journalism and business sides of the industry. I?m not sure who has logged more miles while running a news organization but I?d have to guess he?s at or near the top. More important, he?s been willing to lead and speak up on a variety of industry issues. He?s also been accessible when journalists, at least this one, barge in at odd times with even odder deadlines, willing to explain the subject du jour and usually with great patience. That?s what he?s done this time in a wide-ranging interview conducted primarily by phone with follow-ups by e-mail. It?s been edited but not with a heavy hand as we make the most of the lack of space limitations online.
Staci D. Kramer: Was there a particular moment when you realized that you were going to wind down your time at MSNBC?
Merrill Brown: I wouldn't say there was a particular moment. It happened over time, actually over a long period of time, as I thought about what I want to do and where this organization is and where its parents are. We got to this spring and there was new management and much change in the wind and it became very clear to me I wasn't exactly the best person to either implement that change or make it work over time so it seemed to me that I should not dawdle and decided it was time to move on. ?
First of all, it is clear that there is a necessary striving toward break even which the whole organization has to engage in and although we were very close in trend and in fact in '98 through 2000, we?re now a bit farther off and the pressure in this economy to get there is going to create lots of changes. Secondly, I think lots of people in Internet news are struggling to be as expansive as certainly I like to be in an environment that doesn't necessarily, at least in the short run, encourage growth and new software development, breaking news, coverage from around the world, the things that I really was proud of and passionate about during our heyday. It seemed to me that if I couldn't do those things, things I had already begun doing with the commitment from the organization and the resources that I had had, it wouldn't feel right.
SDK: Was there anything in particular that they had said we?re not going to do from now on or this budget is going to go down?
MB: No. We as managers are given a fair amount of autonomy in this organization to make decisions about resource allocations, and so I've been making certain decisions all along that require us to focus on what?s most important in the short run -- being crisp about covering breaking news, being able to sustain 24/7 capability and so forth, and I've had to change things in ways that were often disappointing, but these were my decisions. Nobody said don't send reporters and producers to Europe anymore, but it?s just harder and harder to take our people and put them into important news situations that involve lots of resources, and that?s a hard place to be. Plus we've lost some significant amount of our ability to control our technological future, in particular our ability to do new application development and new site development projects over the course of the past couple of years. And among the things here, that was then most fun, challenging, rewarding was working on site development projects that really break ground, and we?re much less able to do today than we were.
MB: Resources and the fact that more and more of what we do is being integrated for efficiency and economics sake into the MSN organization, including at least some of our software development capability. So we?re sharing resources more, and more and we were not really in that game at all in the earlier years.
But I really -- and I hope you'll use this in the transcript of the piece -- I don't want to exaggerate how resource constraint issues are factors in my decision. It?s also in part about me and the fact that I've spent six years here. It feels in many ways, not just the ones we've been talking about, like it?s time to consider alternatives.
SDK: Before now, what?s the longest you've spent in any one job? Not any one place (of employment), but any one job.
MB: My usual tenure is about four years. That?s not because I get tired of things. It?s that, I guess, I?m really excited about the new and different.
SDK: You?re not a caretaker.
MB: I'm certainly not a caretaker but I also love the challenge of new and different things. As you can see from my resume, I've done a lot of different things that are satisfying in very unique and discreet ways. I really liked running a magazine in the late '80s when it was the right time, I thought, to do that. I really liked launching a cable network in the early '90s, which was a very fertile time for a cable network start-up. Obviously being in the Internet starting in 1994 and now through 2002, in one fashion or another, it?s been a very exciting time to do this.
SDK: Is this a time when we see the pioneers moving on? Maybe that?s too broad a statement.
MB: I don't know if we can make a sweeping statement like that at all. Everybody?s personal situation and career development opportunities are unique. What else would I do in Internet news but work here, frankly? I don't know what?s going to develop for me over the next six months or six years but I can't quite see at least today sitting here that at any time or for an extended period of time would I go run an Internet news site.
SDK: So this isn't one of those things where you leave and two weeks later we hear you've taken on some amazing new job?
MB: I wouldn't say that necessarily. I'm considering several things and I hope they'll be exciting, too, but I'm not going to go to a rival Internet news site in two weeks, two months or, frankly, two years.
SDK: Is your leaving removing a layer of protection for MSNBC.com?
MB: I really don't know what structures will be put in place after I leave and I'm not even in a position to speculate about that. They've said they?re going to seek a new editor in chief. That person, especially if it?s somebody who works for me today, will be, I?m sure, very effective.
SDK: When you talk about MSNBC coming close to breaking even ? the success in the wake of major events like 9/11 came with a high price tag, that traffic had its price.
MB: I think the 9/11 situation is very unique. Obviously 9/11 from a newsgathering point of view was unforeseen by us and every other news organization in the world. I don't feel guilty at all that we weren't prepared from an infrastructure point of view for the audience of that scale, in particular the demands on our video distribution capabilities. I can't apologize for that or regret that at all. The best minds in the industry or this company couldn't have foreseen how to manage our way through the video kind of crisis we had during that period. 9/11 in many ways is an aberration and in this one, small way an aberration here as well.
When you talk about sending a couple of reporters to Kosovo or to Afghanistan, the kind of things we really like to do, the scale of the economic investment that each one of those required is dwarfed by the economic implications for our site of the surge in traffic on 9/11.
SDK: Is that what led to the cutbacks earlier this year?
MB: Absolutely not. The cutbacks we had to do earlier this year were because of a strained revenue circumstance.
SDK: Because of advertising?
MB: That's about all we've got around here.
SDK: Along those lines, MSNBC.com and a number of other sites, some long gone, made a great deal of their branding and their expansion out of content alliances that didn't bring money with them but brought the use of other sites? content and put your content out there. Is that still viable?
MB: I am an architect of one of the most expansive such relationships -- the NBC-Microsoft-MSNBC-Newsweek-Washington Post relationship. I'm watching my friend and colleague Jon Alter on the cable channel (MSNBC) right now. I?m very proud of his affiliation and the affiliation of other Newsweek people with MSNBC cable and with NBC news.
In our case I set out to do that, not that particular relationship per se, but to build alliances with news organizations to fill holes in what the NBC newsgathering operation could offer us. I certainly have no regrets about that or relationships we have with the Wall Street Journal, with a variety of technology publications, all that?s really critical to building a great and expansive site. WashingtonPost.com is a great site that?s made better by their access to NBC News video and footage. They don't have a video library or a live news channel they can rely on to add multimedia to what they do everyday, and I?m thrilled that I helped create a situation where they could have that.
I don't care who you are in this medium -- if you?re not alliance building ? you?re going to be behind the 8-ball because nobody has it all.
SDK: I remember sitting in Steve Brill?s office after he acquired Inside.com and being told there was no reason to do that because there was no money in it.
MB: We actually had that same conversation, me and Steve Brill. Often. We are in the business of maximizing eyeballs for advertisers. To say that projects or relationships that bring new eyeballs to your site doesn?t have money attached to it is silly. Unless you?re going to be a small niche subscription operation, say, in the B2B category, it is preposterous. It is about eyeballs. Every little peacock that sits on the Washington Post site or every link to our stories from partner sites is in the interest of both brand building and, more importantly, traffic. We?re selling eyeballs here. It?s a medium.
SDK: Why do you think you've been able to succeed in creating a strong brand and creating an ongoing enterprise when your cable counterpart is foundering?
MB: I don't want to talk about cable. They?re my colleagues but I'm not involved in their day-to-day operations . They have significant brand challenges, obviously. They don't practice what they do with the kind of the attitude and approach that Fox can and does because they?re part of a long-established news organization, NBC News, with its own world view. I don't know what to say about that.
On to Part Two...