By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
For the three network news Web sites — MSNBC.com, ABCNews.com, and CBSNews.com – partnership was the key word in 2007.
All three formed alliances with other media companies in apparent attempts to drive revenue and attract an elusive younger audience.
At the same time, all three networks continued to build on earlier digital strategies, including aggressive video campaigns, unique online newscasts and expanding anchor and reporter blogs.
NBC News’ Web site, MSNBC.com, was launched in 1996 as a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC. It is the umbrella site for the NBC News family, which includes the Today Show, NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams, Dateline, Meet the Press and MSNBC’s cable news programming.
The site’s headquarters are in Redmond, Wash., and news is produced there, as well as in New York, and Washington, D.C. As of early January 2008, it employed more than 200 staffers, according to its Web site.1
According to data from Nielsen Online, MSNBC.com is the second-most popular news Web site in the U.S., trailing only Yahoo News. In 2007 the site averaged 29.2 million unique visitors per month, compared to Yahoo News’s 32.6 million. The online audience for the network’s news division’s digital properties — along with those at CBS and ABC — may actually be higher, when one includes visitors from outside the United States as well as those who view video segments on YouTube or wireless devices such as iPods.
The site’s layout was redesigned in late 2007, with an emphasis on showcasing more video and photos.
MSNBC.com also formed partnerships with two print news organizations to boost its political coverage of the 2008 presidential election. (As we reported in Online news investment, joint ventures have become an increasingly popular strategy for major media companies.)
In June, NBC News, MSNBC and MSNBC.com joined forces with the National Journal, which publishes a weekly magazine aimed at Washington insiders. According to news reports, the partners hope to combine their respective strengths — video and political print journalism — to create an alternative to the traditional “campaign embed” strategy used by most news organizations. The standard coverage entails assigning one reporter to follow one candidate throughout the campaign. Instead, NBC and the National Journal plan to field “mobile campaign bureaus” which move from candidate to candidate.2 For MSNBC, which had failed to develop a cadre of online reporters producing original content, the deal provides built-in staff of sorts. For the National Journal, the deal gives a respected magazine with limited circulation a far broader outlet online and exposure on cable news.
In July, NBC News and MSNBC.com announced a partnership with the New York Times to collaborate on election coverage.3 According to a New York Times press release, the news outlets will share access to breaking news. In a memo to the newspaper’s staff, Times’ executive editor Bill Keller wrote: “In brief, the arrangement goes like this: We will give NBC stories, graphics, pictures and the Caucus blog for their Web site. They will give us video for ours along with links that should expose many new readers to our online journalism.”
“The 2008 campaign is already the biggest political story of our lifetimes, and getting bigger and more complex with every passing day,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, vice president for digital media for NBC News. “This collaboration gives our organization the ability to cover all the bases, with a powerhouse combination of top-quality journalism and top-flight technology delivering the story to viewers and readers wherever, and whenever, they want it.”4
In October 2008, MSNBC.com also made its first acquisition in 11 years, buying the Seattle-based Newsvine, a citizen-run Web site that lets users produce their own news, offer feedback on articles and link to related news sites.5 Links to Newsvine’s content are now displayed on MSNBC.com’s news pages. Neither company disclosed terms of the sale.
The deal comes at a time when a number of media companies are investing in or buying user-generated sites, upping the ante in the networks’ battle against spreading cable and online-only media.
For instance, MSNBC.com rival CNN.com launched I-Report in August 2006. The online tool offers a form and upload that allows citizens to submit photos and video of breaking news. In April 2007, video from a graduate student’s cell phone, which captured sounds of sniper and police gunfire erupting on Virginia Tech’s campus, was aired repeatedly on CNN television programming the day the tragedy unfolded. ( See Cable Chapter.)
ABCNews.com serves as the main page for its morning, evening and prime-time news programming, including Good Morning America, World News, 20/20, Nightline, and This Week. The site also hosts The Note, a political news blog written by ABC News staff.
ABCNews.com averaged 10.6 million unique visitors per month in 2007 in the United States, making it the eighth-most popular news site that year, according to data compiled by Nielsen Online. One knowledgeable network Web executive estimated its online staff to be at roughly 100 as of early January 2008.
In the summer of 2007, ABC launched i-Caught, both a prime-time newsmagazine and Web site built largely around video submitted by users.6 For six weeks, the news magazine aired at 10 p.m. on Mondays, with ABC News television correspondents producing news stories based on select videos. Though there were news reports the show would air again later in the year, it has not returned to television as of early 2008. The Web site, however, continues to feature user-generated video covering a wide range of subjects, from predatory animals to the 2008 presidential campaign.
In November 2007, ABC News also announced a partnership with Facebook, the social networking site, which generated 35 million unique visitors in the U.S. in December 2007, according to data from comScore.7 The New York Times reported that month that there was no money involved in the deal.8
On Facebook, registered users can subscribe to ABC News journalists’ profiles, correspond directly with reporters, participate in polls and debate ABC News election coverage with other Facebook users. The platform got its first real test in January 2008, when the new partners sponsored both the Republican and Democratic televised presidential debates in New Hampshire and used Facebook as a real-time voter forum.
“The goal is to extend the debate from being a one-hour session that happens on television to a dialogue that can take place before, after and now during the debate between voters,” said Dan Rose, Facebook’s vice president for business development.”9
ABC News also made inroads in creating original newscasts solely for online.
Its online newscast was launched in January 2006, when ABC News was still experimenting with two evening news anchors, Bob Woodruff and Elizabeth Vargas.10 In May 2006, Gibson was named the program’s sole anchor.
When Jason Samuels, a senior producer who manages World News’ digital content, took charge of the online newscast in April 2007, he wanted a more freewheeling, informal feel than television viewers were accustomed to seeing. “Do one long stand-up, do much longer sound bites, play an interview,” he told contributors to the online newscast. “Produce a show in any way you think is engaging — there are no rules.”11
The free newscast can be downloaded directly from ABCNews.com or Apple’s iTunes store. The newscast has placed ads from such companies as AT&T and Pfizer, and is aggressively reaching out to 25- to 54-year-olds.
For now, however, ABC News concedes it is more focused on experimenting with its editorial content online than on making money. The digital newscast’s monthly audience of 4.5 million is roughly half of what the televised newscast reaches in an average evening on television.
“What I’m hoping is that the digital end of ABC News will begin to produce enough revenue to devolve to the benefit of World News,” said Gibson.12
CBSNews.com is the Web site for the network’s six television news programs: CBS Evening News with Katie Couric, 60 Minutes, Face the Nation, CBS Sunday Morning, the Early Show and 48 Hours. It also produces original content not aired on television.
In 2007, the site averaged 9.2 million unique visitors, making it the 11th-most-visited news site that year. That number places CBS News third, or last, among network news Web sites.
Heading into 2008, CBSNews.com’s staff was estimated to be anywhere from 15 to 20 people. That number, however, may change. In mid-December 2007, there were online reports that CBS News had plans to lay off as much as 30% of online personnel.13 CBS has not confirmed that.
In 2007, CBS News created other opportunities for citizens to participate on its Web site. In September, for instance, the network launched EyeLab, an online feature that allows users to edit CBS programming, including news shows, into bite-sized clips.
CBS’ initial inspiration for EyeLab was a seven-minute YouTube clip of CSI, CBS’ hit crime show series. The network conducted internal research and found that less than a third of CBS.com’s audience was willing to watch full-length episodes of its programming, the Wall Street Journal reported.14
“Recognizing that short-form content is what our viewers want online, we’re committed to bringing CBS fans short, easy-to-digest clips — which they can take and mash up, rework, re-edit and, no doubt, inspire us with their creativity,” said Anthony Zuiker, the executive producer and creator of CSI. “Using the Web as a direct engagement platform with those who care the most about the show is a perfect way to bring the TV experience online and in turn, to learn from fans.”15
The site cost $500,000 to set up and CBS hired six digital-video editors to create content. In order to maintain a more genuine “citizen media” spirit, CBS said EyeLab’s editors would work outside corporate headquarters.16
In 2008, CBS News, like MSNBC.com and ABCNews.com, also formed a partnership to enhance its political coverage, though this one was not an alliance with professional reporters. In January, CBS teamed up with Digg, one of the most popular user-generated news sites. CBSNews.com users will be able to share political content with registered Digg users, as well as see Digg’s election-news headlines.17
In addition to the main CBS News Web site, there are a number of blogs. As of January 2008, CBSNews.com hosted 10 blogs, fewer than both MSNBC.com (21) and ABC News (12), according to research conducted by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
In 2007, the News Media Yellow Book, published by Leadership Directors, included staff listings for four of CBS News’ blogs: Couric & Co., Primary Source, Public Eye and Tech Talk. According to the winter 2008 Yellow Book, there were 24 editors and contributors to these four blogs.
In early 2008, however, CBS News ceased operations on its Public Eye blog.
“We weren’t able to find a sustainable business model for Public Eye. We are exploring other ways to maintain a similar spirit of public discourse by engaging the CBSNews.com audience and building a community around multiple voices,” a representative of CBS Interactive told the TVNewser blog.18
These staff listings, however, are self-reported and may not be an exhaustive list of all staff members who contribute to or edit CBS News’ blogs.
In 2007, the NewsHour’s Web site continued to evolve.
With a grant of $1.15 million from the Knight Foundation in August 2007, the site is now equipped to offer more original content, according to David Sit, vice president of the NewsHour. The grant allowed the program to hire an online managing editor and add two online reporters, bringing the total online news staff to 14, two more than in 2006.
The site began hosting online forums in the fall of 2007, encouraging visitors to submit questions to NewsHour guests, who included journalists, economists, doctors and poets. Interviews with guests are available to download as podcasts. The grant has also enriched the site’s Extra component, an online news and information resource designed for students and teachers. According to Sit, the grant was used for a major redesign that made the feature easier for users to navigate.
In 2007, the NewsHour also formed an online partnership with NPR. The radio and television venture resulted in an interactive 2008 Election Map and more political reporting from local NPR and PBS stations.
In the end, 2007 was a transitional one for the network news Web sites.
Rather than continuing to build their sites mostly on their own, MSNBC and ABC sought more prominence through partnerships building content through access to other brands rather than their own. And CBS followed suit.
Some of these partnerships were about more traditional journalism, such as MSNBC’s deals with the New York Times and the National Journal to provide its readers with more original reporting.
But, through its partnerships in 2007, ABCNews.com’s reached out to new forms of media, to social networking through Face book, and, it obviously hoped, toward younger audiences.
For many years CBSNews.com had been ahead of the virtual curve among the network news Web sites, offering blogs and customized features to its visitors. That momentum may have slowed in 2007, with a reported staff reduction, and the site is now is in third place among the Big Three.
1. “Who we are,” MSNBC.com Web site, last accessed January 20, 2008.
2. Paul J. Gough, “NBC partners with print reporters for ’08 race,” the Hollywood Reporter, July 17, 2007.
3. In January 2008, CNBC, which is also owned by General Electric, announced that it, too, had agreed to a content-sharing deal with the New York Times. Richard Pérez-Peña, “Times and CNBC to Share Material on Web Sites,” the New York Times, January 7, 2008.
4. “NBC News/msnbc.com and the New York Times/NYTimes.com Announce Collaboration on Political Coverage and National Political Content for the 2008 Campaign,” New York Times Company press release, July 30, 2007.
5. Brian Stelter, “MSNBC to Acquire a Chattier News Site,” the New York Times, October 8, 2007.
6. Michael Learmonth, “Network launches user-generated video show,” Variety, May 28, 2007
7. “comScore Media Metrix Releases Top 50 U.S. Web Rankings for December,” comScore press release, January 15, 2008.
8. Brian Stelter, “ ABC News and Facebook in Joint Effort to Bring Viewers Closer to Political Coverage,” the New York Times, November 26, 2007.
9. “ABC News Joins Forces With Facebook,” ABCNews.com, December 18, 2007.
10. Brian Stelter, “ABC Reshapes the Evening News for the Web,” the New York Times, October 12, 2007.
13. Staci D. Kramer, “Updated: CBS Interactive Trims Staff, Cuts at CBS.com, CBSNews.com,” paidcontent.org, December 14, 2007.
14. Rebecca Dana, “CBS Creates ‘EyeLab’ To Woo Web Surfers,” the Wall Street Journal, September 28, 2007.
15. “CBS Launches ‘EyeLab,’ an Editing Studio for Creating CBS-Based Content Across Interactive Platforms,” CBS press release, September 28, 2007.
16. Rebecca Dana, “CBS Creates ‘EyeLab’ To Woo Web Surfers,” the Wall Street Journal, September 28, 2007.
17. Caroline McCarthy, “Digg, CBS Interactive team up for political coverage,” News.com, January 8, 2008.
18. “CBS Blinks, PublicEye Goes Dormant,” TVNewser, January 2, 2008.