Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Making Some Needed Big Changes

Just when you think you know somebody, they go switching things up and making changes. Whether they’re good changes, or welcome changes, is always the wild card. The country wanted a change in November 2008, and made one; the jury’s out on how well that’s going.

But for msnbc.com, the news Web site joint venture owned by NBC Universal and Microsoft, a potentially seismic shift is being considered for the most indelible, accessible factor in a Web site’s relationship with the public: its name.

The New York Times reported Oct. 6 that NBC Uni and Microsoft are in “high-level talks” about a new name for the Web site that’s the third most popular news Web site in the United States, behind Yahoo! and CNN.com.

“The two parents have not yet agreed on what to call the site,” The Times’ Brian Stelter reported. “But according to internal memorandums obtained by The New York Times this week, the parents have concluded that the brand known as msnbc.com, a strictly objective news site, is widely confused with MSNBC, the cable television channel that has taken a strongly liberal bent in recent years.”

It would be less of a challenge for msnbc.com to make this switch if not for the fact that, after 14 years with that moniker, the most immediate point of identification for its 50 million users is the name they’ve gotten accustomed to. There’s big risk involved with such a change.

Just like with a TV show that finds its audience comfortable with watching it at a certain date and time, making a switch runs the risk of alienating people who’re used to the familiar — even if the familiar hasn’t changed anything but where it is.

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The rationale for the change seems to make sense on paper. As a former news editor, reporter and channel producer for msnbc.com, I can testify to the ways that msnbc.com was often perceived as the little brother to MSNBC — this despite the fact of their joint provenance (they were founded together in 1996 by NBC and Microsoft), the greater speed the Web site usually employed in breaking-news stories, and the greater newsgathering versatility brought to bear by dotcom’s being a 24/7/365 live operation — unlike MSNBC, then and now.

Over the years, msnbc.com made the most of the in-the-shadows relationship; one of the most journalistically productive alliances in recent years was the tie-up between msnbc and MSNBC in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Given what happened in New Orleans those terrible days, you hesitate to use the phrase “total immersion” to describe news coverage.

But in this case it was true. The relentless use of the synergies between online and cable, the sharing of newsgathering resources and a common sense of journalism as nothing less than national mission, yielded exhaustive, revelatory and ultimately award-winning coverage of that seminal American event.

Other ways of integrating little m and Big M took place over the years; there was a brief flirtation with making reporting from little m's writers and editors part of the regular Big M on-air news mix.

The same kind of newsgathering synergy was evident earlier tonight, as little m and Big M jointly covered the (at this hour still ongoing) rescue of the 33 Chilean miners: Big M giving people the big picture on cable, little m offering online users a running textual account of the event (with video from Big M).

But little m has long had its own editorial and advertising infrastructure; the current consideration of a new name makes public, in a maybe unprecedented way, just how much little m wants an amicable divorce from Big M for what seem to be irreconcilable differences.

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Politics drives so much of our identity these days; it just makes sense that politics would divide a Janus-like news entity with one foot in each of the two camps of the present and the future of communications.

Since 9/11, MSNBC has philosophically tacked to what it saw as the prevailing political wind, from right to left, restyling itself numerous times in the process. For the most part, msnbc has navigated the waters of the last eight years with fewer concessions to the perceived political mood.

With fewer resources earmarked for byline reporting indigenous to the Web site, little m used relatively impartial wire stories from the Associated Press and Reuters, and content from other external partners, for much of its daily informational diet. One reason, no doubt, why Charlie Tillinghast, the president of msnbc.com, called the Web site an “impartial news product” in one of the memos.

In the years since 9/11, Big M has made an inconsistent but steady shift to the political left, with hosts from Phil Donahue to Chris Matthews to Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow and Lawrence O’Donnell (the guy on the left) at the helm of programs that have been unabashedly progressive in their perspectives.

Tillinghast, in one of the memos accessed by The Times, said, “Both strategies are fine, but naming them the same thing is brand insanity.”

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This is no hastily-hatched plan. The Times reports that discussions and branding research have been going for months. “Consensus in this case is a tall order,” Tillinghast wrote in one of the memos.

According to The Times’ understanding of the memos, what’s being considered is the current little m URL being used to host an independent promotional Web site for Big M programming. The current msnbc.com Web site would move to a new URL. One of the names considered for little m is NBCNews.com (which currently redirects to msnbc.com) but other entirely new names are also in play, according to the Times’ reading.

According to The Times, Tillinghast “envisions a ‘brand family,’ with the to-be-renamed Web site positioned at the head of the table, joined by two existing spinoff sites, one for NBC’s “Today” show and one devoted to breaking news alerts.”

Fears of the loss of long-accumulated brand loyalty have to confront a simple question: Is advertiser and reader allegiance being made to the brand or to the product the brand represents?

Andrew Heyward, a former CBS News president and a digital media strategist, thinks rebranding can be a good idea, one that reinforces unity of brand and product. “It’s incredibly important in this media cacophony for brands to be consistent, for brands to stand for something,” he said.

Heyward wasn’t bothered by the fact that by changing the URL for little m, you’re forcing people to change behavior — a difficult thing to do in the best of circumstances. “You can quickly redirect people who might be confused,” he told The Times.

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But maybe not. Commenting on the situation at The New York Times’ Media Decoder blog, reader Andyarrow came up with an elegant workaround that makes a lot of sense:

“Instead of changing the name of the Web site -- which would, at some point, require action by Internet users (i.e., switching to a different URL, hence, the problem) -- why not change the name of the cable channel? It can be called anything (such as ‘NBC Blue’) but would still be the same number on the TV dial, and therefore require no action from viewers. And, MSNBC, the cable channel, is a misnomer anyway, since MS (Microsoft) no longer has a stake [In 2005, NBC bought Microsoft’s stake in the cable channel].”

Laexaminer, commenting at Decoder, agrees: “NBC should rebrand their news networks to the Red and the Blue Network. CNBC can be the Red Network with [Jim] Cramer, [Larry] Kudlow and [exchange trading-floor mad dog Rick] Santelli, and MSNBC the Blue Network with Olbermann, Matthews and Maddow. It's a historical reference and it matches the orientations of the viewers perfectly.”

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PaidContent.org, a news Web site that monitors the economics of digital content, weighed in Oct. 6 with a somewhat punitive perspective of the situation: “The cable net should have been renamed in 2005 when NBC acquired the majority stake — and, in fact, there were serious discussions about doing just that. Now the cable brand is too entangled with a distinctive point of view and even if it could be changed, it still carries too much baggage for the site. What’s left is a monumental mess of a change.”

There’s a lot at stake: The Web sites accessible under the collective msnbc.com brand draw almost 50 million Internet users every month, according to comScore, a respected online metrics measurement firm. Only Yahoo and CNN.com have bigger audiences, said comScore and Hitwise, another metrics concern.

And there's room for what may be a little more confusion: Dylan Stableford at The Wrap reported Oct. 6 on the soft launch of BLTWY, “a completely new digital news brand” of political coverage by msnbc.com and MSN, the Microsoft portal and information firehose (and which looks something like Wonderwall for politicos).

The Times reported that a little m board meeting on the matter set for the end of October has been pushed back until at least mid-November.

PaidContent.org reports that “Tillinghast has expressed hopes that a decision would be made before the Thanksgiving holiday.”

PaidContent.org: “New MSNBC.com, whatever it’s called … may recover and grow in the long run but endless redirects and expensive branding campaigns won’t protect ex-MSNBC.com from the fallout that comes from changing domains. Too bad CBS owns news.com.”

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And then there’s this new “Lean Forward” thing. Big M’s spiffy new tagline debuted last week, as part of a two-year ad campaign in print, outdoor and online, a rollout apparently meant to bolster the public awareness of Big M, and to positively reinforce the network’s increasingly progressive and opinionated editorial slant.

“The resulting ads are not day-and-date promotions for specific programs; rather, they are emotional set pieces about the national debate that moves America forward,” The Times reported.

For Phil Griffin, the president of Big M, the tagline “defines us and defines our competition”; the MSNBC brand “is about ideas and change and making the country a better place. It’s an umbrella that’s pretty wide, but that does have a progressive sensibility.”

“We’re confident. We’re strong,” Griffin told The Times. “Let’s not live in the past, let’s not live by fear.”

“We can go backward, or we can keep moving forward,” Obama said in a June speech at Carnegie Mellon University, a speech excerpted in a video about the ad campaign that was screened for MSNBC employees last week. “And I don’t know about you, but I want to move forward.”

(Coincidence? You be the judge. What better way to assert your progressive bona fides as a network than by drawing from a speech by President Obama for your tagline?)

For Tillinghast, president of little m, the “Lean Forward” gambit “only exacerbates the brand misalignment problem” he’s been grappling with for years.

And that’s the matrimonial drama to be played out. Like a tale of two partners in a union that’s played out for whatever reason, the saga of little m and Big M is moving toward what will be a very public conclusion — each player tired of sleeping in the same brand-name bed with a partner from whom each has become, respectfully, estranged.

Image credits: All images: msnbc.com and MSNBC. Except: Tillinghast: via BeetTV. NBC Red Network logo: NBC; Blue Network logo: ABC Inc. 

The blowback against "Lean Forward" has begun, and from a high place: Since the announcement of the old Big M rebrand, Jon Stewart has jumped in, with his characteristic plain-spokenness.

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