Larry Kramer’s current post as president of CBS Digital started with a consulting job for Andrew Heyward, who was looking for input on a revamp of the CBS Evening News and CBSNews.com. He turned to Kramer, who was winding up the transition of the MarketWatch sale to Dow Jones. Heyward, whose launch of “48 Hours” boosted his way up at CBS News, was on the MarketWatch board from its founding through the sale and saw in Kramer a blend of net savvy, business expertise and traditional journalism that could help CBS News. Three months later, Kramer was reporting directly to Les Moonves, CBS chairman and Viacom co-COO/co-president, as the head of a new division that rolled up all of the CBS internet sites into one strategic center. [Moonves’ title was corrected after publication.]
The relaunch of CBS News as a 24-hour, multi-platform news network, not just a collection of broadcast programs with a web site, is the most striking move yet. paidContent.org Executive Editor Staci D. Kramer spoke with Heyward by phone today. Excerpts from her conversation follow.
Division of labor: Vaughn Ververs, charged with covering CBS News through yet-be-launched blog The Public Eye, will be on Kramer’s staff. Heyward says, “We think Vaughn needs to be independent and to make it an even more compelling model Vaughn should not report to me.” But Betsy Morgan also will be on Kramer’s payroll as SVP & GM of CBSNews.com; advertising and video production are CBS Digital missions, too. Heyward says, “The equation doesn’t hold up unless CBS News is fully engaged in it and I feel that gives me plenty of say in the matter. … It’s not as though we’re outsourcing to somebody else to gather our news or to produce our news. I think we’re playing to everybody’s strengths.”
Why now? Heyward likes to joke that “for the last 10 years broadband has been three years away.” Now, he says, “it finally has come. You have 45 million users in the workplace, 80 million connections at home. Clearly, you have critical mass and still growing there. You have advertisers recognizing the huge potential of this medium. You have an enormously demographically desirable audience, including many your people … consuming news in a new way, which is what they want when they want it. And we’re not devoting our resopurces to a struggling cable channel so we’re able to devote them wholeheartedly to our original reporting here.”
Cable alternative: “Live when it’s worth it but always there when you want it” is another Heyward mantra. “It takes advantage of the non-linear aspects of the internet, which happen to be exactly how the most desirable young news consumers want to get their news. They don’t want to sit there waiting for what they want to roll around again on some cable programmer’s timetable.” An example: CBSNews.com plans to air the space shuttle launch live but quickly will post it as on-demand video. Users who don’t want to watch the shuttle can choose an update on Iraq or another piece of video instead. “It’s a more compelling model,” says Heyward, offering sibling MTV’s Overdrive as an example. “They’ve created a pseudo-linear product by creating basically a loop of their clips but they also encourage you to create your own. Here you can create a linear experience for yourself by creating your own playlist and letting it play but at the same time we’re not making you sit through anything.”
More interest from broadcast staff: One of the greatest challenges faced over the years as newsrooms set up internet sites has been getting buy-in from the non-digital staff. It’s different now, says Heyward. “They’ve all become avid internet users and they see the environment and I think they see the potential for this.” That shift is aided by what Heyward calls a “sea change” at CBS News, from everything revolving around the “Evening News” to programming across a series of shows. “At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I do feel we’re only at the dawn of the era of really compelling broadband news and there’s tremendous room for improvement.”
Measuring success: “We’re relatively small so I think there’s a lot of upside. We’ll see actual growth,” says Heyward. They’ll rely on feedback more than they do on the broadcast side. He sees it as guerilla marketing, to some extent; make a connection, establish a direct relationship. “It would be shortsighted of us only to rely on the numbers. We’re going to have to look at multiple benchmarks.” That includes ad revenue. “We’re also going to have an economic benchmark, which will be, I think, encouraging and certainly we’ll see very quickly whether there’s acceptance.”