'For us and the readers, it's not all about Britney'

Budget day coverage at MSN UK News included a package of features, and a podcast by veteran Westminster reporter George Jones interviewing former Tory Chancellor Kenneth Clarke.

The Microsoft-owned portal’s executive producer, Peter Bale, a Reuters and Financial Times veteran and former editorial director of Times Online, feels a bit ignored.

‘Coming from a somewhat more traditional media background, it is very noticeable to me that portals and their position in the UK media market isn’t always fully considered by the rest of the industry or the industry media,’he says.

With 2.9 million unique visitors in January, according to metrics firm comScore, MSN’s news portal has a bigger audience than all the traditional news outlets except BBC News, two national newspaper websites and rival – but possibly future sister portal – Yahoo! News.

Most of the content is bought in from third-party news providers: the Budget podcast was produced by the Press Association, and material from Reuters and ITN features prominently.

‘We’re never going to have thousands of journalists in bureaux around the world – we’re going to have to buy in that breaking news stuff, but then we can put our own layer on top of that to help people get more out of any given story,’says MSN UK News editor-in-chief Matt Ball.

Still, with a team of full and part-time staff of more than 30, MSN has more dedicated online staff than several national newspapers.

‘There’s no cardboard cutout of the typical person we’re recruiting at the moment, ‘Bale says. They come from local newspapers, magazines and radio stations, but also from web design firms and online retailers. The major prerequisite, Bale says, is ‘a real passion for the web and its technology”.

Since January, MSN has launched what it calls its Media Academy to provide this team with a ‘common level of journalistic basics”.

The site’s objective is to generate 10 per cent of its editorial content in-house or commissioned exclusively for MSN, such as the recent experiment which saw freelance correspondent Ben Hammersley reporting on the recent election in Pakistan on a multimedia blog.

In some sections, a far higher proportion of original reporting already is the norm. Some 45 per cent of MSN’s music section is produced internally, and the three journalists in the cars section are producing an even greater proportion.

While most major media are experimenting with becoming more niche-oriented online, MSN’s approach is unabashedly mass-market. As a consequence, MSN attempts to provide a a politically impartial, ‘straight view of the news”.

‘The Times and The Guardian have a very well-attuned understanding of who their audience is. With us it’s a bit more of a mission to explain why a story matters, and also to give differing views,’says Bale.

But Microsoft also has a good idea of its audience: primarily18 to 35-year-olds, skewing slightly female at 52 per cent. ‘I assume our readers also read Metro and thelondonpaper. But there’s also quite some overlay between our readership and that of the Daily Mail, for example,’says Bale.

Instant Messenger

MSN’s news operation has an important advantage over rival online publishers: Links to its stories appear on the webmail and instant messenger screens of 28 million MSN UK users.

‘We are still learning a lot about how to best use our network to promote interaction and promote tailored news of any sort,’says Bale.

On Instant Messenger pages, the content is skewed towards entertainment news to appeal to the lower average age of the service’s users.

MSN is also experimenting with ways of delivering news interactively via instant messaging. ‘For a lot of people, Messenger is their most trusted place online. The whole thing about social networks is that your friends become your recommendation engine; we have some real estate and a way to reach our users through one of their most trusted applications,’says Bale.

‘But because it’s such a trusted place, we’ve got to be really careful – we’re not going to push things down people’s throats.”

Usually, this means waiting for a prompt for a user before suggesting a link to a news story on a Messenger window.

By adding a ‘Reality TV friend’to their buddy list, users can interact with a ‘bot’or program which mimics human behaviour by responding to questions. Sending a message about Dancing on Ice, for example, prompts the bot to respond with a list of links to stories about the series.

More conventionally, perhaps, users can choose to receive Instant Messenger notification if a share price passes a predetermined level.

‘We’re using a Microsoft technology to give ourselves an editorial advantage,’Bale says. Another area where this is apparent is in MSN’s use of online mapping to illustrate stories.

Bale, a confessed ‘map junky”, advocates using maps to give readers an overview of the locations mentioned in a news story – whether it’s a view of the course of the Grand National or the locations in Baghdad of pictures by Sunday Times photographer Steve Bent .

‘This one is doing it by keywords, but a lot of news services, including PA, have started adding geotagging data to their pictures and their news, which will allow us to do this all in a much more feed-based way,’says Bale, showing off a still-under-wraps site that highlights stories from the Reuters wire popping up in the appropriate locations on a Microsoft Livemap of the world. A similar visualisation of activity asthe Microsoft Spaces blogging platform is also in the works.

Competition

‘In terms of the competitors that have emerged over the past 18 months, it is the newspapers that have raised their game dramatically and taken much greater market share than they had previously. They are now punching their weight in this sector as they had previously in the printed sector,’says Bale.

‘The broadcasters are also doing really interesting things – ITV.com is doing really well and Channel 4 is really innovative and then, of course, there’s the BBC sitting on top of us all.

‘We are all part of the same ecosystem, and that’s why I’m very pleased to see this incredible appetite for hard news out there – and whatever people say, the consumption of news is going up. That’s a very healthy thing for journalism, as long as we’re giving people what they want.”

Bale says statistics consistently reveal the online audience’s appetite for hard news. Following coverage of Benazir Bhutto’s assassination in December, readers left 58 pages of comments on the site, he says.

‘I was really pleased with that because it shows that it’s not, either from our point of view or the readers’ point of view, all about Britney.’

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