Learning from MSNBC.com (part 1)

When a longtime journalist comes in to speak to journalism students, you’re never sure what you’re going to hear. Some ramble on about their glorious stories, their coups and earthquakes. Others speak more from the heart, and we get a sense of how this profession insinuates itself under the skin.

Tom Brew, deputy editor at MSNBC.com, spoke to our students last Friday, and he focused on the future.

(See an archived Webcast of a one-hour talk by Tom Brew to UF journalism students. You can also download the MP3 audio-only version for mobile listening. This blog post is based on this and two additional hours Tom spent with our students. Thanks, Tom!)

Right now, NBC sees MSNBC.com as the way to extend the NBC News brand into the online world. NBC News is “hungry for anything we can suggest that will help them extend the franchise,” Tom said.

Tom pointed to foreign correspondent Richard Engel’s blogging from Iraq, MSNBC.com’s recent acquisition of Newsvine, the way science writer Alan Boyle has created a whole new profit center online around science and space journalism, and — of course — the online coming-into-his-own of Nightly News anchor Brian Williams.

“Brian Williams decided he was not going to be the last dinosaur anchor, and he learned how to write and how to blog. He wants to be first on the Web,” Tom said.

Pointing out how busy a network anchor is, how jam-packed his schedule, Tom emphasized that Williams has to make time to get this extra work done. Williams is also keen on doing Web-only video for the MSNBC.com site — evidence that he sees the future pretty clearly.

“If you’re offering nothing more than the news you did on TV last night, cut up,” Tom said, “that’s not going to make it. But if you’re willing to extend that, and add to it, then you’ve got something” in terms of your Web site, your online presence.

Blogs are particularly successful for TV journalists because they can bring more of their TV-style personality into the writing, Tom said, and not submit to the constraints of traditional print newswriting. He recalled an effort to rewrite a Tom Brokaw script for the Web site, years ago, and what a frustrating exercise it was. Adapting the content from another medium is simply not the best strategy for digital and online media, he said.

MSNBC.com counts its audience at about 32 million visitors per month (Nielsen NetRatings calls it at 28 million monthly), but Tom noted that the amount of time any single visitor spends on the site is quite short.

“You need to be cognizant of user behavior,” he told the students.

That includes paying attention to what your advertising people are putting on your pages, by the way.

“Online, all of a sudden — to my horror — the ad guys have gotten creative,” Tom said. He held up a copy of a print newspaper and opened it, showing two pages with display ads. When you’re laying out pages, you know the ads are going to “just sit there,” in the position shown on the page dummy. The advertising staff spends every waking hour dreaming up new ways to thrust the ads into people’s faces — even if that interferes with the editorial content the audience wants to see.

Tom sees this as a threat that editorial must stand up to — with great fortitude. “If we bastardize our brand over time with flying ads, sponsorships, people are going to leave you — because online, they can go anywhere,” he said. The audience comes to YOUR site only because they respect YOUR brand, he said.

The ethical issues we face online, Tom said, are basically the same ones we faced in print. He emphasized that journalism students need a strong grounding in traditional journalism ethics to be able to recognize trouble and route around it. Online, the editors must talk with the folks in advertising — Henry Luce’s famous wall between church and state (in the newsroom) needs to come down. The editorial side needs to keep a close watch over the business side, but at the same time, the business side needs to innovate if the business is to survive.

Tomorrow: Tom Brew’s advice for journalism students

About Tom Brew

At MSNBC.com, Tom Brew is responsible for the site’s distribution, community and blog strategies, including the integration of Newsvine.

In 1976, with a new master’s degree in mass communication from the University of Florida, he went to work for the Daily Herald-News as the Charlotte County reporter. A year later, he moved up to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, where he covered education. After two years as assistant city editor at the Bradenton Herald, he went to work at the San Jose Mercury News, where he started as Metro/night city editor.

Following 12 years at the Merc, in 1995 he moved to Redmond, Washington, and joined MSNBC.com as an editor.

4 Comments on “Learning from MSNBC.com (part 1)

  1. The Tom Brew piece (above) is worth reading a second time. I think there needs to be a lot more talking (okay, thoughtful talking) about how to THINK about change.

    This isn’t exactly the first time in history big media organizations have had to change. It is not going to be the last.

    London, UK & Brittany, France

    P.S. Go Gators!
    University of Florida, BSJ ’71

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