Sixteen years — to the day — after an unlikely duo launched news joint venture MSNBC, Microsoft and NBC News are taking charge of their own digital news destinies. Sunday night NBCNews.com finally got its own home on the web, taking the place of Msnbc.com, while Microsoft portal MSN is planning its own news operation.
The cost of freedom for Comcast and NBC Universal: roughly $300 million, with “a portion of the total price” coming from the JV’s “past profits,” according to the New York Times. The careful wording makes it a little difficult to be sure whether or not that means the 50-50 JV should be valued at $600 million.
Microsoft and Comcast agreed to the split Friday, according to the NYT; in its own news story, NBCNews.com reported that many details have yet to be worked out. But the biggest hurdle was cleared, allowing NBC News to rebrand the site immediately.
The NBCNews.com story avoids financial details, but tries to get the value across:
In addition, while msnbc.com has never publicly reported revenue figures, independent industry studies have called it the most profitable news website in the United States. NBCUniversal will now collect those profits.
NBC News plans
NBCNews.com will become part of a new division known as NBC News Digital, which will be led by Vivian Schiller — hired as chief digital officer last year following her departure as president and CEO of National Public Radio. Charlie Tillinghast will remain as president and publisher of the rechristened site; he was one of the first publicly to suggest that it was time to think of changing the name and control. The divergence in the network and the digital operation became more stark as MSNBC TV turned more toward political talk TV and msnbc.com kept its news-centric mission, but the two remained tied in branding.
In the process, NBC News is giving up its lock as the exclusive news provider on MSN but it is also gaining the right to make new deals of its own. It’s not an immediate risk; the network says it will take at least two years to unwind everything and that MSN will continue to send traffic to the news site. MSN also will continue to sell the site’s advertising for now to avoid any disruption, according to NBCNews.com. The MSNBC digital network drew nearly 50 million unique visitors in June, according to ComScore; MSN accounts for about half of that.
In an editor’s note announcing the change, NBCNews.com promised that MSNBC TV will launch a site in 2013 that will be “an extension of the MSNBC TV on-air brand, creating in-depth content and a community for the passionate audiences of MSNBC programs.” In a way, that makes MSNBC more like a traditional cable channel than it was at its cross-platform start. That URL will redirect for now but eventually will become a separate site for the cable news network.
When the two started to unwind the cable TV part of their partnership in 2005, giving NBC Universal a controlling interest and bringing MSNBC TV into the NBC News fold, the digital joint venture remained intact. NBC News President Steve Capus said the partnership “keeps us on the leading edge in the online world.” That was when digital was pennies to NBCU.
Now it’s real money. Capus told the NYT:
“It’s undeniable how big a part of all of our businesses the digital properties are going to be. We think we have a much better opportunity to shape them, and frankly grow the news division over all, if we have direct control over all of it.”
The crew producing NBCNews.com will stay on the Microsoft campus in Redmond for now; eventually, they will move to new office space in Seattle. Production will shift to New York, according to the NYT but NBCU is promising to build an “NBC News Innovation Center” in Seattle for developers. The NBCNews.com version makes it sound like editorial staff will stay in Seattle as well. (I’m checking on that and will update.)
Capus told NBCNews.com that the startups acquired by MSNBC.com — BreakingNews.com, Newsvine.com and EveryBlock.com — aren’t likely to face major changes.
MSN plans its own news unit
MSNBC’s digital journalists fought from the beginning to be viewed independently as a news organization despite the Microsoft connection. Now MSN is hiring for a fall launch of its own news unit, although how large it will be is unclear. GM Bob Visse told the NYT, ““we’re going to go out and build a world-class news team.” He also said the portal will make new distribution deals.
Visse told NBCNews.com:
“If you start thinking about what we’re going to be doing in Windows 8 and the Bing app and what we’re going to be doing … across the multiple platforms, it makes a lot of sense for Microsoft. We’re talking about using technology and using data to solve information delivery and news delivery in new and innovative ways.”
That’s “really difficult” when there’s an exclusive relationship with one news provider, Visse said.
That’s probably even more difficult when much of the 16 years of a site has been defined by trying to show its independence. I wrote about this a decade ago when msnbc.com was being rebranded to show more of its MSN connection. At the time, two-thirds of msnbc.com’s traffic came from MSN — and there was a strong sense from both partners that the portal relationship was needed for the site to survive and thrive.
While ABC News has increased its ties to Yahoo to take advantage of the portal relationship, NBCNews.com now sees independence and control as the key to its own future.