Wednesday, July 18, 2012

News by a different name


WHEN IT started in 1996, msnbc.com was a potentially interesting and influential amalgam birthed in a very fledgling Internet age, an ambitious but rough and unpolished news–driven Web site as a joint venture that combined the resources of Microsoft and NBC News.

The intervening years were good to the marriage, as msnbc.com powered its way to dominating news on the Internet. By the time I left there, in June 2007, base users of the site had grown from about 10 million a month in 2001 (when I came aboard) to about 30 million. But the partners were growing apart; each was developing new interests and affinities. By the start of this year, the thrill was gone.

The divorce that’s been building for years was finalized late on Sunday, when msnbc.com officially became NBCNews.com, unifying NBC broadcast and online resources under its own flagship name.


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How did it come to this? Brian Stelter of The New York Times wrote in October 2010: “The partnership was pioneering at first, with a best-in-its-class Web site owing to Microsoft’s technologists in Washington State and a companion cable news channel run by NBC’s news-gathering teams in New York. But drastic changes in the media business, differing priorities inside the companies and the physical distance between them brought them apart.”

“Another driver was MSNBC, the cable channel, which started to take on a politically progressive persona several years ago. As the image of MSNBC changed, the head of MSNBC.com, Charlie Tillinghast, floated a name change.

The New York Times reported that month that NBC Universal and Microsoft were in “high-level talks” about a new name for the Web site that was the third most popular news Web site in the United States, behind Yahoo! and CNN.com.

But that was a risky proposition. As I noted that month, making a name change for internally justifiable reasons could have had drawbacks: “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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Some background from my blog in October 2010:

msnbc.com was often perceived as the little brother to MSNBC — this despite the fact of their joint provenance …, 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. …

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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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 at the helm of programs that have been unabashedly progressive in their perspectives.


In short: Grounds for divorce. Irreconcilable differences.



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ANDREW HEYWARD, a former CBS News president and a digital media strategist, understood what was at stake back then. “It’s incredibly important in this media cacophony for brands to be consistent, for brands to stand for something,” he told The Times.

But even then, before anything had even happened, other analytical voices were downbeat. PaidContent.org, a news Web site that monitors the economics of digital content, was in a finger-wagging mood in October 2010.

“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.”

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Well, not really. When the name change was made official on Sunday, it outwardly appeared to go off without a hitch: all branding, bantops, site vertical elements, the works — converted seamlessly at about 7 p.m. West Coast time.

We might have known, of course, that this was no overnight thing; part of what accompanied the changeover was a splashy new house ad that trumpeted the transition, well, splashily:

But there’s always somebody peeing in the punchbowl. On July 12, Jeffrey Lord of The American Spectator used the pending occasion of the name change to offer parting shots at the site’s old identity, and take a shot across the bow of the new one.

“Why in the world would NBC be worried about ‘brand confusion’ with a cable version of itself? ...

“[I]t is abundantly clear that Microsoft has enough problems without having its brand associated with what has become a wacky, far-left media culture that specializes in hosts who have problems with racism, misogyny, gay bashing and religious bigotry. Now comes the news that Microsoft and NBC News are getting divorced.

“The ‘brand confusion’ will be ended by renaming MSNBC as ‘NBCNews.com’. “Finally, formally and officially, the spewings of hate and hard partisanship that gush forth from MSNBC will belong to NBC News. And NBC News alone. ...

“NBC News is now dead as a doornail.”

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PREMATURE obituaries notwithstanding, the site now known as NBCNews.com faces a future with a unity of editorial purpose reflected in its unity of editorial identity (and with plenty of time to get the public’s head around the change before the election). For most of the site’s 300 employees, there’s still a shoe to drop; Stelter at The Times reported that the majority will keep their jobs, but it’s still unclear who’ll make the move to 30 Rock in New York.

For me and other veterans of life at the little m, it’s somewhat bittersweet; how should you feel when your ex gets a divorce? Diplomatic, of course. You wish the former object of your affections all the best.

Vivian Schiller does. “Everybody wants the baby that we birthed together to grow up and thrive,” said the NBC News chief digital officer, to The Seattle Times. “It's been nothing but a good experience.”

The End. For now.

Image credits: Top four images: © 2012 NBC News, NBCNews.com. Ed Schultz promo: © 2012 MSNBC.

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