MSNBC gets a second wind

Summary:COMMENTARYWhen I first wrote about MSNBC in a column over a year ago, I was cranky. As I scrolled around the sparse, all-white Web site, I kept thinking to myself, "Is this all the news that's happening in the world right now, and if it is, then why is this site so slow?


When I first wrote about MSNBC in a column over a year ago, I was cranky. As I scrolled around the sparse, all-white Web site, I kept thinking to myself, "Is this all the news that's happening in the world right now, and if it is, then why is this site so slow?" I had to surf over to CNN to reassure myself that yes, other events were indeed taking place. MSNBC had just decided to bury them a few levels down to keep its site in a state of Zen-like emptiness.

Well, no more. The recently unveiled MSNBC redesign (call it MSNBC II) is a far-more hyperactive, candy colored place. It looks much more like--dare I say it?--television. And I like it much, much more.

In order to celebrate the relaunch, MSNBC threw a party at New York's famous (and very Internet-savvy) Knitting Factory performance space. Slut for free food that I am, I dragged my tired self all the way downtown after work along with a colleague. Encountering a gaggle of very Microsoftish door people, I found out that my invitation was good for only one person. So I could go in, but my friend would be left out in the cold.

Now first of all, who would ever go to a party like that alone? How boring! Second of all, I was from PC Magazine! Didn't they realize what that meant? (Throwing my PC Magazine clout around is surprisingly effective sometimes but apparently not when I'm dealing with Microsoft). Fine, I told the doorwoman, we'll be on our way. And with that, we headed off into the night--only to be summoned back and ushered inside by someone who must have been a higher-ranking doorwoman.

Excellent, I thought, until we found ourselves in the midst of an overcrowded nightmare of loud music and so-so sushi. The pushy Microsoft attitude was on display inside as well. "You can't stand here," we were told. "I mean it. You really can't stand here." And when we tried to squeeze our way out of the place after an uncomfortable half hour, I felt a firm hand between my shoulders literally pushing me out the door. Nice attitude.

Not to worry, though. All that rough handling hasn't prejudiced me against the redesign. The more exciting, more helpful interface floats much more information to the top. For the first time, local news and weather is just a click away. That's something CNN doesn't do very well. Connections to MSNBC's TV shows are being toned down a bit, no doubt to make the site feel more like a news-gathering service. MSNBC is no longer depending on the star power of people like Jane Pauley and Al Roker to generate traffic. It probably wasn't working anyway.

I'm also really pleased with the improvements MSNBC has made in news personalization. Last year, I bellyached about all the error messages I got when I tried to tell the service about my personal preferences. This year, it's a simple 1-minute operation, and my favorite sports scores, stock prices, and celebrity updates are soon scrolling on the right-hand side of the MSNBC home page. I can also enter keywords to be notified of relevant news stories. CNN Custom News does this as well, but in my experience, it's been a little quirky, despite its much-vaunted Oracle infrastructure. MSNBC's works just fine. A year ago, I said to MSNBC "Give me one reason to bookmark you." Since then, it has.

Meanwhile, MSNBC is trying to bolster its on-the-air image as a serious competitor to CNN. (The arrival of the Fox News Channel in more major markets makes this a pressing matter.) Subtle and not-so-subtle changes are afoot, some as a direct result of the death of Princess Diana, which proved to the MSNBC brass that the best ratings come from breaking news. The MSNBC logo now often says MSNBC News. Shows like Edgewise and The Site have been axed to make room for more "news chat."

From what I read in the trade press, it looks like MSNBC continues to lose money hand over fist. It's a good thing Bill Gates is so rich, or we'd probably be seeing Brian Williams doing infomercials for food dehydrators by now. MSNBC seems to be valuable mainly as a placeholder, as a bet that someday soon, TV and computing and the Internet will meld into one big infoblob that such a channel will be fully equipped to service. Until then, MSNBC just goes along doing a good job of cranking out the news, and whether people watch doesn't really matter a heck of a lot.

Do you watch MSNBC? Let me know.

Topics: PCs, Microsoft, Oracle, Tech & Work

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