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Never mind all that confusion and ratings messiness over at the cable-television MSNBC, the website part of this multi-headed operation just keeps trucking along. When Microsoft and NBC joined forces in the early '90s to create MSNBC, the idea was to establish an integrated online and on-air news powerhouse, built on Microsoft's strength in the computer world and NBC's in television. Nearly a decade later, the operations run largely independently, the cable network an often-struggling, New Jersey-based offshoot of NBC News and the website an online-news powerhouse headquartered across the country, on the Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington.
Scott Moore has been with the MSNBC.com team all along. He was a longtime Microsoft employee who joined MSNBC at its inception and soon went on to become publisher of Slate, Michael Kinsley's politicians-and-culture webzine. Today he's president of MSNBC.com, responsible for guiding the fortunes of not only the MSNBC site but also Slate. He spoke to mediabistro.com last week about the future of internet news, blogs as news sources, and why internet readership ratings make no sense.
Birthdate: May 1, 1961
First section of the Sunday New York Times: Week in Review.
So I guess you started as publisher of Slate and watched it grow from nothing.
When I got the job, Slate had been subscription-based for about ten months. I got rid of the subscription the first week I was in the job. I’ve seen our audience go from 200,000 to about 5,000,000 a month.
How did Slate differentiate itself from the zillions of other web publications—many of which have since gone under?
I think the focus on excellent writing is what probably distinguishes Slate from pretty much any publication. There are only a few publications that you think of when you think excellent writing, like The New Yorker and The New York Times. I personally believe that we are in that category of excellence from a writing standpoint.
How much is Slate or MSNBC.com influenced by synergy with the other? Are they separate entities or do they borrow a lot from each other?
We’re organized separately. The editorial departments are separate, and that’s deliberate, because MSNBC and Slate have very different charters, MSNBC being a daily news operation and Slate being a more opinion-focused, an editorial vehicle. But we do work together quite a bit and we’re doing more of that all the time. We share publishing tools, technology, we share editorial content. MSNBC uses quite a bit of Slate material and Slate posts MSNBC headlines. So there are ways that we help each other out, but we also respect the differences between the two.
Do you work to have a common standard between the website and TV?
That was kind of the original vision, but it turns out that the website and the television serve very different audiences and very different purposes. We end up doing a lot more with NBC News than we do with MSNBC cable. Partly because NBC News has a bigger audience and it’s a much better known brand—or brands, the Today show, Dateline, et cetera. Also partly because MSNBC.com is fundamentally a hard-news service where people go to find out the latest on whatever is happening around the world in almost any category. Television news, by its nature, has evolved more into infotainment, especially in primetime, and that’s just not what we do online. We definitely do work with them to some extent but we work more closely with NBC.
You recently argued in an article that the Internet ratings system is flawed. Tell me about that.
This is an ongoing source of aggravation for me personally. It just seems ridiculous that at this stage of development in the industry we’re still having people play games with ratings. My argument in the Ad Age article is that there’s a conflict of interest when you have a ratings organization like Nielsen//NetRatings also in charge of the categories in which its paying clients fall. The paying clients are naturally motivated to try to game the system.
And try to get advantage by being in a specific category?
Right. Or by throwing a whole bunch of stuff into their number so that their number gets bigger within a category. Or, when they become eclipsed in one category, they want to move into a new category where they’re going to be bigger than the other competition. It’s almost a case of the inmates running the asylum. It’s bad for advertisers, and it’s bad for business. Users don’t care; no reader of Slate or MSNBC gives a hoot about how large our audience is, but our advertisers sure care. We as an industry ought to be mature enough to give them honest and straightforward comparisons. The example that I used in the piece was where CNN over the course of three or four months had thrown in Sports Illustrated and Money's websites along with CNN.com in order to inflate the site’s numbers. I just found that to be outrageous.
Tell me what your solution to this would be.
There are a couple of initiatives underway. The Online Publishers Association is leading one of them and there are a number of groups that are involved. Essentially, I think what we need is one group that is independent of the client and trading companies, and that is also independent of the rating companies, to create a standard classification, a schema of web-publishing categories. An independent panel would create that, and then the rating companies like Nielsen would just do what they do best, which is count. The problem is they’re currently in the position of collecting and reporting the data, and they’re also getting influenced by their paying clients to mess with the schema. That’s a problem.
You would think the advertisers would be the most interested in having something like this.
It’s very much in their interest. You could also have a panel of journalists, journalism professors. People who have a level of integrity—or at least a perceived integrity—and no conflicts of interest.
What are your biggest challenges at MSNBC right now? The company has had a schizophrenic few years; what are you trying to do with the site right now?
We are focused on a couple of areas. We’re about to deliver a major upgrade to our publishing system which is going to make us much more nimble and flexible in terms of what kinds of things we can publish and the speed at which we can publish. We’re also redesigning the site in just over a month. MSNBC.com will have a completely new look and feel that we think will be pretty exciting
How has the online news business been challenged by the proliferation of weblogs in the past couple of years?
I think online weblogs actually help the online news business quite a bit. Weblogs are just another factor in the constantly increasing pace of the news cycle. Weblogs by their nature are referential; they certainly almost always point out a new development, the blogger is riffing on something that’s happened in the news. The extent that weblogs continue to grow in popularity means more people are interested in the news and engaged in getting their news online.
Do you find that it brings more people to MSNBC or with the proliferation of all the sources, do people get more scattered? How do you draw in an audience when there are so many new sources each day?
There are more sources, and there are certainly more and more blogs all the time, but people have good bullshit filters. I don’t think anybody would say you could replace a primary news source like MSNBC.com by reading blogs. If they did that, they would be deluding themselves. Some people may be happy to be deluded that way, but most people won’t. I see blogs as derivative of news and if you get interested in blogs, you’re going to be, by definition, more interested in getting news. But there certainly haven’t been any major new entrants into the online news field.
How do you see MSNBC expanding?
Streaming video is something that I think you’re going to see a lot more of in the very near future. The broadband market has reached a tipping point; we’re now past 20 million households that have broadband, and there’s 70 million people or more at work with a broadband connection. Video is a natural way to take advantage of all that’s available. And we’ve done other things as well lately; with Slate we’ve greatly beefed up our entertainment coverage with movies, music, books, that kind of stuff. That’s been highly successful for Slate over the last year or so, maybe even longer than that. That’s a trend we’re going to continue to push. I think MSNBC is going to also expand in that area.
In general, what do you think is going to happen in the future with online content? Newspapers are increasingly now going to subscription-based premium services. Is that the way everything will go?
I definitely do not think so. The online advertising market is continuing to evolve and to emerge as probably the most powerful trend in marketing. With broadband, that trend is only going to increase. If you’re in a position where you can aggregate an attractive audience and sell it to advertisers, you’re going to make money. Subscriptions in the print world are a necessary evil because every magazine or newspaper has marginal costs—you’ve got ink, paper, distribution costs, et cetera. When publishing on the web, your cost of reaching a larger audience is virtually zero. The cost of publishing Slate in 1999 was higher than it is today and our audience is 40 times larger. There’s nothing that’s going to get in the way of that trend. It’s only a matter of how fast the potential ad opportunities will grow.
Tell me how you felt about the coverage of the war.
Dean Wright, the editor of MSNBC, had a quote that I really do believe in, which was: "This is the first internet war." By that I mean: the war in Iraq was the first war that took full advantage of the communication that the internet provides. We had embedded reporters whom you could watch on cable news but you could also watch on MSNBC.com. It was just a very powerful endorsement or proof for the medium. The audience levels went through the roof. Whereas in television, their ratings were up, but not nearly as much on a percentage basis. This was a war where the Internet took its place as a primary news source.
Do you think that, in wars or in general, the internet keeps news more honest, in the sense that you could have people at any location who have computers giving their opinions instantly?
I certainly do. I think that probably one of the reasons you had the embeds this time around is because the Pentagon realized they had no absolutely no chance of keeping the lid on things like they did in the first Gulf War. If they tried to do that, you were gonna end up with media people reporting over the internet or over satellite phones from all over the place, anyway.
David S. Hirschman, mediabistro.com's news editor, is a freelance writer and editor.