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Q&A With MSNBC's Dean Wright

Nearly eight months after founding MSNBC.com Editor-in-Chief Merrill Brown announced his resignation, the Microsoft-NBC News joint venture finally has tapped a successor: Dean Wright, who was part of Brown?s founding crew returns to the fold from AOL Time Warner on Feb. 10.

Managing Editor Michael Silberman, who served as acting editor in chief for most of that interim, stays on in Secaucus, New Jersey, while Wright moves back to Microsoft headquarters in Redmond, Washington.

?He has some very well-thought-out ideas about some editorial changes he wants to put into place,? says Scott Moore, general manager, MSN News & Information. Those changes include a stronger emphasis on the site?s breadth. 

Dean Wright

Dean Wright          

Wright?s plate will be full from the get go. A redesign has been in the works for months and he will be able to influence the final product. A "pay for video" plan is under consideration although Moore insists some video will remain free. He attributes the site?s recent return to the top of the current events and global news category in the Nielsen/NetRatings monthly rankings to the combination of free video when competitors CNN and ABC News are charging and greater prominence for MSNBC.com at MSN.com.

As is the case at other sites, most notably perhaps the company Wright is leaving, MSNBC is searching for ways to make the most out of broadband; over 60% of visitors to MSNBC.com use broadband connections, according to Moore.

At AOL, Wright was senior director of programming integration and, as the title suggests, was active in the integration of content from Time Inc. magazines into the AOL service. He also served as senior director of programming and promotions for Netscape/AOL Web Properties as Netscape shifted gears from browser to media center. During his first stint at MSNBC, Wright spent four years as managing editor of news.

NBC News president Neal Shapiro says Wright brings ?the full package? -- experience at MSNBC, experience with a competitor and strong journalism credentials. ?I think it begins with a good solid foundation in journalism. With online journalism you should never lose sight of the journalism that?s a part of it,? he explains.

"I think the changes you?ll see that will make it more reflective of my vision will be the changes in the coverage of lifestyle, entertainment, and in the use of our partners."

Wright?s journalism credentials include working as a reporter and supervisor in the Associated Press Washington Bureau and at various newspapers in the United States and Canada. Says Shapiro, ?I think the most important thing is he has a love, interest and respect for the hard-breaking news.?

But Wright?s plans for MSNBC.com go beyond breaking news and hard-hitting original journalism as he explained to me during a telephone interview while on vacation in the Florida Keys. An edited transcript follows.

Staci D. Kramer: How did you end up in the mix for this job?

Dean Wright: It?s always been an ambition of mine to run a news site and, as you know, I was at MSNBC in its formative years and it was important for me to at least put my hat in the ring to come back.

SDK: Why were you told you were picked?

DW: I like to think it?s because of the vision I have for MSNBC going forward and because of my familiarity with the way things have been in the past at MSNBC. I think there?s a sense of continuity and also a chance for some new beginnings.

SDK: Did your time at AOL give you some perspective and distance that helps?

DW: I think some of the work I did at AOL Time Warner was useful in showing how news and information can be integrated into a larger network and take advantage of the strengths of the larger network.

SDK: For instance?

DW:  The work we were beginning to do integrating content from Time Inc. magazines into in the AOL service had some mutual benefits for both the Time Inc. titles and members of the AOL service.

SDK: And the benefits would be ...

DW: The benefits to the AOL member would be high quality editorial content that offers really immediate satisfaction without having to do multiple clicks to other web sites. Basically it puts the best in one place.

SDK: And the advantages to the news sites?

DW: An extension of the brand and also some increases in traffic.

SDK: At the same time the idea behind the exclusivity was to take it off of the main road?

DW: We were just getting into the notion of exclusivity. 

SDK: How do you feel about the environment you?re going back into? MSN has made some changes with the way they?ve integrated MSNBC into the overall site. They?ve added navigation bars to the top of MSNBC.com that weren?t there when you left, for instance. Are you comfortable with the way MSNBC is being integrated into MSN?

DW: It?s going to be a key mission of mine to make sure the MSNBC brand remains one of the strongest and most distinctive on the Internet. At the same time, I think we?re going to find ways to leverage the strengths of MSN so we can bring more of that great work that is at MSNBC to even more users.

SDK: For instance?

NNR H&W Reach

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DW: I think there are some changes in design that are coming. I?ve seen some of the early work that?s been done on that and there are going to be some pretty exciting changes that will make the MSNBC material even more visible. ... We?re looking at ways to provide some more prominence to some of our partners and also just to make sure that the wider range of material that?s available at MSNBC is as as surfaced as possible.

SDK: Are the nested menus going away?

DW: There are no plans for that.

SDK: What about the distinctive look that the site currently has -- which has been different than the look of just about any other news site? It?s also been there a long time.

DW: It?s going to continue to remain one of the most distinctive sites on the Internet. We?re still fairly early in the process but I?m sure that as in the past you will be able to tell this is MSNBC without even looking at the logo.

SDK: Are you looking for more partnerships and or would you simply like to get the most out of the partnerships you already have?

DW: I?d really like to maximize our relationships with our partners that we already have. Our relationship with NBC News remains our editorial bedrock and I think as we move more wholeheartedly into the broadband world that partnership is going to be important as we bring news to people on much larger pipes.

SDK: People are going to be getting information in even more ways. How does this change your mission from where MSNBC started out as a Web site?

DW: I think it gives us a way really to revive the excitement of that era. The real explosion in the next few years is going to be in innovative devices that allow users either to get away from the PC or to expand the notion of what the PC is. I think it?s far too early to make really specific predictions about what it?s going to look like but I?m confident that MSNBC is going to remain a leader in that sort of delivery.

SDK: How does broadband change things?  I guess it makes it possible to charge for video since people can see it in high quality.

DW: It makes it possible to do that. It also makes it possible in many other ways to make our users a much more important factor in storytelling. Broadband really gives us a way to do two-way communication. It gives our users a chance to interact with each other and with us in a much more efficient way.

SDK: You were involved in the political conventions the last time around. Do you see a potential here for covering politics differently?

DW: I think broadband can really revolutionize the way we cover everything and politics should really be no different. I really have just begun to think about this and will probably have more to say to you later.

SDK: Let?s talk about something a little more in front of our eyes right now -- Iraq. Do you feel that MSNBC will have the resources to cover Iraq the way you want to see it covered?

DW: Absolutely. I?ve had nothing but positive signs from NBC, from our other partners and from upper management at MSNBC that we?ll be able to do this. We already have one of our own reporters in the Middle East and we?ll continue to be doing original reporting from the area. In addition, we?ll have the resources of NBC, the Washington Post , Newsweek, Slate. I think that?s a pretty formidable armada to bring to this story.

SDK: Will your staffing remain at about 90 editorial staffers or will you be able to increase?

DW: I don?t have any plans to change the staffing at this time.

SDK: Will Michael Silberman stay in place?

DW: Yes. Actually, Michael and I spoke recently and he is willing to remain in place on the east coast. We?re really looking forward to working closely together.

SDK: You?re pretty familiar with the rest of the group up in Redmond.

DW: It was gratifying when I was interviewing there to see so many familiar faces. The introductions are a whole lot easier.

SDK: There is one big change since you left: No Merrill. How big of a change is that?

DW: The MSNBC editors have really always led the way. Merrill was a pioneer in Internet journalism, remains a pioneer. I?m really humbled by the opportunity to step into his place. We don?t have to give up the legacy of great things that we?ve done. At the same time I?m not Merrill so I?ll probably do some things differently.

SDK: What?s the biggest difference between you and Merrill?

DW: You?d probably have to talk with Merrill to make sure. I?m not sure if this even is a big difference but one of the things I want to do is to keep doing the very best in online original journalism. At the same time, though, I think we need to beef up our coverage in lifestyle, entertainment, health areas -- the areas that really have a daily influence on people?s lives. ... I don?t know if that?s a difference from Merrill but it?s something that?s important to me. At the same time I also want to make sure, since we?re associated with some of the best brands in journalism, especially NBC, Newsweek, Slate, Washington Post, it really does a service to our users to present the work of these brands in as cohesive a way as possible.

SDK: Will you appoint another ombudsman?

DW: I really haven?t given that any thought ...

SDK: while you?re looking at the macro picture right now a lot of people are interested in more micro issues -- will there be another ombudsman? is there any undue influence from Microsoft? Will you use Slate?s beefed up coverage on lifestyle issues or will the two of you work together in that direction? These may be too specific for you to be dealing with now.

DW: Without getting into specifics, some of which I haven?t thought about, I do think it?s important. I do think it?s important that we really closely coordinate on MSNBC.com the wide variety of editorial voices we have and that includes Slate, Newsweek. I think both those brands can play a key role in our coverage of lifestyle and entertainment. It?s a matter of pulling together all of the disparate pieces that we have.

SDK: When do you expect people to look at MSNBC.com and see your impact?

DW: I think if you look at msnbc.com now you?ll see some of my impact because of the role I had early on. The bottom line is really there isn?t very much broken at MSNBC.com and I?m going to continue to make sure the parts that are unbroken stay unbroken and the parts that need some adjustment get some adjustment. I think the changes you?ll see that will make it more reflective of my vision will be the changes in the coverage of lifestyle, entertainment, and in the use of our partners.?

SDK: And the frustrations that Merrill had before he left, are you concerned about any of those things?

DW: I?m not sure what Merrill was frustrated by.

SDK: Budget, changes in the way some things were being run, that the money wasn?t going to be there for technological innovation, the resources issue overall.

DW: I?ve had no signs from anyone I?ve been dealing with either in Redmond or in New York that innovation is going to be a problem for MSNBC.  I think that we have to really integrate early and smartly with Microsoft as it develops technologies for delivery and, as you know, NBC played a key part in the selection process and I?ve had nothing but support from Neal Shapiro and Bill Wheatley.

SDK: Your journalism credentials are strong. Does that go a long way towards helping ease of the fears of a Microsoft news service the same way that Merrill?s background helped?

DW: I think anyone who has fears that MSNBC is somehow going to lose journalistic credibility should really put those fears to rest.

SDK: Who are your biggest competitors?

DW: CNN remains our strongest competitor. Google News is going to be a force to be reckoned with but I think that we bring the kind of editorial excellence and thought to the editorial selection and I think we?ll be able to hold our own. I think I could guarantee that we would never lead our site with a press release as happened with Google News.

SDK: You start Feb. 10. What?s the first thing on your to-do list?

DW: At the top of my list is getting reacquainted with one of the best staffs in online journalism. Next is to start, given the timing, to start covering what seems to be an inevitable war in Iraq.

SDK: How do you deal with working with Slate? You came out of being created around the same time and from the beginning there was always a separate identity.

DW: I think Slate and MSNBC will continue to be separate, distinct editorial brands but we are definitely going to be talking to each other and I think there will be, if you?ll pardon the expression, more synergy between us. 

Staci D. Kramer is Editor at Large at Cable World and was a contributing editor to Inside.com. Based in University City, Mo., Kramer's clients have included Time, Life, the Detroit Free Press, the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, Multichannel News, APBNews.com, mediainfo.com, Editor & Publisher, The Sporting News, St. Louis magazine, several major papers in Canada, and numerous others. Her work has been syndicated by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, reprinted in two books and she has even co-produced a segment for "Nightline."