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Branding Time at MSNBC

It would be so much easier if what you were about to read was a majestic tale of the forces of good taking a stand against the forces of evil as an editor walks out the door rather than compromise his principles.

But, as is often the case when Microsoft is involved, ease isn?t part of the equation. [Nope, I?m not a Mac-o-phile; I write from daily experience.] Instead, the story of MSNBC.com, the ambitious joint venture of Microsoft and General Electric?s NBC News, is more about pragmatism than high drama -- although the search for a new editor in chief does add a touch of mystery, as does the redesign now in progress for one of online journalism?s most distinctive sites.

This much is certain: MSNBC.com is changing. That might not sound like news given that change often appears to be the one constant of online journalism, but how it changes -- and why -- says much about the post-bubble world we now live in. That would be the world where the notion that ?content is king? has been appended with ?but distribution rules.? MSNBC?s future depends on making the most of the latter without dethroning the former.

"Today nobody can convince me you can stand alone as a Web site. You need to be part of a network." -- MSNBC's Scott Moore

Merrill Brown?s departure as editor in chief of MSNBC.com earlier this summer may have shocked some but it would have been a greater surprise for his colleagues had he stayed. Brown was unhappy with many aspects of his job and increasingly disturbed by plans to integrate MSNBC.com more closely with MSN, Microsoft?s own portal/network. His decision left no small amount of unease about the journalistic direction of the enterprise and left a number of people inside and out scanning the skies as they wait for the next shoe to drop.

At the same time, his departure provided a kind of release. As one executive involved with the joint venture explains it, ?they?re addressing many issues that sort of got held up while Merrill was deciding what he would do. How they can improve every section, where can they do without ... all of those questions are in play in a careful, methodical way. People have leveled with the employees.?

The decision of senior executives not to replace Brown right away added to the uncertainty but was tempered first by leaving the top three remaining news executives in charge and then by appointing one of them, deputy Michael Silberman, as acting editor in chief. NBC News is heading the search for Brown?s successor; Scott Moore, the recently appointed general manager of Microsoft?s MSN News and Information division, says there is no timetable for the selection process and that Silberman ?may sort of work his way right in.?

All too often when founders or other top execs leave a newsroom they leave armed camps behind. Unless some of those now involved with running MSNBC are even better actors than they are journalists, that doesn?t seem to be the case this time. I wondered at first if Silberman?s interim status was linked to concerns that he might have problems with the plans for the site; talking to him cured that.

That doesn?t mean everything is hunky dory or that everyone is on the same wavelength. Those who remain share some of Brown?s concerns about MSNBC?s independence and role within Microsoft. The very structure of MSNBC as a joint venture has created tension from the start and continues to do so no matter how civil it all sounds. It was and remains inevitable. Joint ventures are seldom smooth under the best of circumstances and this one is laden with complications. 

Take the structure. MSNBC has newsrooms at Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington,  and with NBC in Secaucus, New Jersey. NBC News has responsibility over editorial content while Microsoft deals with operations. At Microsoft, MSNBC is part of the new MSN News and Information division founded in April as part of a broad restructuring of MSN. At NBC, it falls under NBC News President Neal Shapiro.

They do have common ground: both companies are tired of red ink and both believe distribution is the key to changing that color to black. Executives at both insist they also share a commitment to original, high-quality journalism.

While Brown might stress the ways MSNBC stood apart, Silberman says, ?The only real difference is we have a separate P-and-L (profit and loss accounts) than the rest of Microsoft. Aside from that we?re quite well integrated into Microsoft and into NBC.?

In large measure, the success of the joint venture rides on the definition of integration. It?s hard to argue with the suggestion that MSN users and MSNBC would benefit from making the news site more accessible and more visible from within the MSN network. Ditto for access to MSN?s features from within MSNBC. Integrate too far, though, and MSNBC runs the risk of being seen more as MS than NBC.

Michael Silberman image

Michael Silberman
MSNBC Acting
Editor in Chief

MSNBC?s independence may have cemented its journalism credibility but it left the site in the odd position of being accessible from the MSN portal without really being part of it. For most users of MSNBC and MSN it is a distinction without a meaningful difference other than the inability to navigate smoothly between the news site and the network. The upcoming changes will put MSNBC?s navigation bars and masthead on MSN?s pages, a move described by Moore and Wheatley as a cosmetic change that will be barely noticeable. Moore points out that it will make life easier for MSN users who want to access network features like stock portfolios from MSNBC. ?It?s just a user benefit that makes all kinds of sense,? insists Moore. That benefit comes with a price -- less viewable information on the screen and more clutter.

Silberman points to elements MSN will be borrowing from MSNBC.com or as he puts it ?converging.? MSN will use the rollover and dropdown menus considered MSNBC innovations as well as the Windows media player style with the player embedded in a content page instead of popping up on its own. Ditto with the large-scale voting technology MSNBC uses for elections and the like. (Slate has already picked up the menus, which refused to work in Netscape 6.2 but did quite nicely in parent Microsoft?s Internet Explorer. Go figure.)

A comment Moore made to New York Times media reporter Felicity Barringer about standalone sites not being feasible rankled some in the online news industry. ?What I meant by that was it seems very clear to me that media on the Internet is much more similar to television as a medium than it is to print but people still want to compare it to print. ... Today nobody can convince me you can stand-alone as a Web site. You need to be part of a network.?

Bill Wheatley, the NBC News vice president in charge of making sure MSNBC gets full value from the broadcaster, says NBC realizes the relationship with MSN provides substantial advantages. He?s confident the MSNBC brand will not get lost in the integration shuffle.

According to Moore, approximately two-thirds of MSNBC users come from an MSN page. ?We also know from a reach perspective MSN is just critical to MSNBC?s success,? he adds, noting that CNN has ?lapped? MSNBC in the last six months. ?The only way MSNBC is going to overcome that problem is with MSN?s help.?

Silberman doesn?t have to be told twice. He says having better distribution through MSN helped MSNBC beat CNN for nearly four years. ?Until the deal with AOL came along, CNN didn?t really have any major distribution partners. It?s clear to us from having analyzed the traffic that we can get a handle on that AOL is finally starting to drive a significant amount of traffic to CNN from AOL and AOL.com and from Netscape.? He offers another example: ?Yahoo! News does well because it?s really, really integrated into the Yahoo! network.?

Unlike CNN and MSNBC, Yahoo! doesn?t produce news the old-fashioned way with a staff of reporters and editors. It aggregates material produced by others including The New York Times and mixes in a liberal amount of press releases from the PR wires. [Kourosh Karimkhany, senior producer, Yahoo! News, wrote after this posted to tell me that his section does not carry press releases. But my personalized Yahoo! mixes news from Yahoo! News with news from Yahoo! Finance, which does include press releases. If the distinction is that important it should be more transparent to users.] MSNBC doesn?t produce all of its own content; a significant amount comes from a partnership with the Washington Post and Newsweek. In a recent arrangement, half-sibling Slate produces most of MSNBC?s Opinions section now titled ?Opinions with Slate.? I couldn't find a link to MSNBC off of Slate's front page.

Integrate too far, though, and MSNBC runs the risk of being seen more as MS than NBC.

Part of Moore?s charge as the general manager of MSN News and Information is to bring Slate, where he was publisher for three years, and MSNBC closer together to achieve profitability. Even to insiders his full responsibilities and goals are somewhat mysterious; those who knew we?d spoken at length constantly asked me about his role and the new division.

Michael Silberman didn?t ask. He said, ?It?s a convenient way to organize stuff and to give someone on the MSN side responsibility for overseeing MSNBC on behalf of Microsoft. We?re already pretty closely partnered with Slate ... it?s turning into a nice two-way relationship.?

Moore?s full charge is increase coordination between the various product teams and ?to gain cost and technology efficiencies.? Sharing technology can be a plus when it comes to streamlining; it can also stifle creativity or make shifting gears extremely difficult. On the editorial side, gaining efficiencies might mean divvying up some editorial responsibilities like the Opinions section with Slate or it could mean cutting back on some subject areas.

He is also responsible for realizing the international potential and for creating new content partnerships. As an example, he suggested increasing the amount of content that is specifically targeted to women. ?We have a small site called Women?s Central. The whole woman?s category of magazine publishing is huge and it?s very attractive to advertisers. MSN can bring massive distribution and great technology.?

?MSN wants to create a strong consistent network experience, but they also clearly understand that MSNBC is one of their successful brands,? says Silberman. ?While they?re rebranding CarPoint as MSN Autos that?s not at all in the cards for MSNBC. It?s not going to be called MSN News.?

Despite some internal communications that described MSNBC as MSN News, Moore agrees. ?That?s one of these things people worried about when we first announced this reorganization. The brand for news on MSN is MSNBC.? 

MSNBC Executive Editor Thomas Brew actually worked at the original MSN News before it was supplanted by MSNBC. ?I think we still have an independent identity,? he said during a chat in his Redmond office. ?We?re trying to maximize MSN as best we can. Our sort of goal on all these channels is to be as ubiquitous as we can be.?

To accomplish that, MSN and MSNBC are looking for ways to mesh MSNBC headlines with the various parts of the MSN network. For instance, the car channel might have a box with news headlines related to the automobile industry.

Brew is keenly aware of the need to walk a fine line between being recognizable as part of a portal and becoming ?some generic bland channel.? But he?s equally aware that he has been part of pioneering a new medium and that means thinking more about aspects like ?user interface? as part of the experience. He doesn?t equate doing that with a loss of editorial independence. ?At the end of the day you have to take the long view. That?s why maybe I don?t get quite as anxious with these things.?

Another aspect that may make further integration easier for Silberman and Brew to contemplate: both predated Brown as journalists working with Microsoft. Silberman went to Microsoft from CBS News to work on interactive TV while Brew brought his newspaper experience at the San Jose Mercury News to MSN News. Brown, on the other hand, was recruited to found a new news organization and to protect its independence.

The next major shift comes (date to be determined but possibly the first quarter of 2003) when MSNBC unveils a redesign that just began. Opinions vary on how different the site will be. MSNBC?s design with its TV-like big picture home page and rollover menus stood out -- not always for the better -- when it was unveiled. Today with so many look-alike sites, MSNBC boasts one of the few news designs that instantly can be identified with its site even without a logo.

Moore promises the site ?absolutely will remain distinctive.? He offers Slate as an example. ?MSNBC is going to maintain its own unique brand and the design is part of that brand ... On the other hand MSNBC?s design has not changed in 5 years. It?s time for a refreshing of the design and the user interface. We?re not going to strip it down.?

The process is literally at the beginning, says Silberman, adding ?we haven?t really thought this stuff through.? He calls it a transition. ?The MSNBC site design has fundamentally not changed since 1997. Microsoft wants to update it; NBC wants to update it. There are some technical issues to work out.... An obvious goal of the redesign is to freshen up the look, identify the competitive advantages we have versus CNN.?

Silberman, who is based in Secaucus, sounds comfortable with MSN?s role in the site. ?From everything that I?m hearing, MSN gets what?s important to the business. ... They understand MSNBC, they don?t want to damage MSNBC and they want to make it a success.
 
?The things that I care about and the things my colleagues care about are winning, continuing to do high-quality journalism and having the right mix of original MSNBC material or partner material,? says Silberman, who was impressed by Moore?s references to original journalism during a recent staff meeting in Redmond. ?Of all of those the key point is the ability to continue to innovate and serve the needs of the business. On all of those points both Microsoft and NBC continue to be enormously supportive.?

Says NBC?s Wheatley: ?I know people are nervous, concerned. This is really important to us, this site, and we?re not about to squander it.?