Ian Burrell: MSN whips up a light mix of news with icing on the top

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The Independent Online

For several years, Microsoft has been trying to establish itself as a player in the news information business. Its MSN site attracts an impressive 28 million unique UK visitors each month, according to ComScore, putting it in third place, behind Google and Facebook.

The great majority are cursory visitors and MSN, with its news room of 70 journalists and content creators, is still a long way off being a serious competitor to Britain's big online news providers, such as the BBC and Daily Mail.

But the will is there, and Peter Clifton, who previously ran the BBC's news and sports websites, was tempted to move to Microsoft's headquarters in Victoria, London, earlier this year to transform what MSN provides. Last week, he unveiled the first phase of that exercise, revamping MSN with extra video content and a simpler design.

Clifton's strategy is based on popular entertainment. "We have a niche of areas I think we can do really well that I know from my experience the BBC probably aren't as interested in," he says. "Entertainment on the BBC site is something they cover but the tendency is to be more high end because they feel that's a better place for the BBC."

Hence on Friday, the day after relaunch, the site was giving pride of place to an "MSN Exclusive" interview with Kelly Rowland, pictured, pop singer and judge on ITV's The X Factor. The video interview of 3:52 seconds no doubt pleased the ITV publicists and generated for MSN the headline of "I love sticky toffee pudding". As an additional scoop – described as an "off-camera nugget" – MSN revealed that during the camera set-up Kelly received a text "which we overheard her saying was 'a very interesting idea from Gary'". MSN surmised the communication was from fellow X Factor judge Gary Barlow.

It might not be the sort of thing that will have fearless story-getters such as Alex Crawford from Sky News pinging a copy of her CV to Dominic Eames, who heads up MSN's network of online channels but it is valuable original content that drives traffic – the "icing on the cake", as Clifton describes such material.

Under the MSN redesign, the simplified site will focus on five areas. As an information site it needs to make two of those news and sport – but the other three key genres are entertainment, lifestyle and cars.

"We get some good exclusive interviews with musicians, we get exclusive movie trailers and we get the first go at new cars and new gadgets," says Clifton of the pull of MSN's mass audience to publicists working in certain fields. MSN has hired sports columnists such as former cricketer Darren Gough and ex-footballer Matt Holland. Clifton is hiring two more experienced television producers to improve the quality of the site's video clips and a crew was dispatched to the red carpet in Leicester Square for the London premiere of the film Breaking Dawn – Part 1.

"We can do a really good live event service around a big reality TV final, the Baftas or the Oscars," says Clifton. "I think that's a really interesting place for us to be, where we can offer some candid commentary and [publish] thoughts from users. If they are watching on their mobile or TV we become a bit of a companion." Another former BBC executive, Darren Waters, has been hired to ensure that MSN content is distributed across Facebook and Twitter in a more efficient fashion.

Other media giants have looked to buy up entire content providers – such as AOL's acquisition of the Huffington Post, which is now competing with MSN in the UK – but Clifton says MSN has enough in-house talent not to need to follow that route. He admits that many MSN users are just passing through on their way to their Hotmail inbox or to use the Bing search engine. But he says these are also MSN's advantages. "The knowledge we can get from Bing about the topics that people are searching for [gives] an expertise here that I would have died for when I was at the BBC," he says.

But though Bing helps with prioritising the key breaking stories, Clifton says that personalisation of MSN pages based on a user's own Bing searches might be a step too far. "The first thing they think is 'What am I missing? I have tailored this page and if something really important happened I might miss out'."

Nearly three years ago, Ashley Highfield, the former BBC new media boss, moved to Microsoft and claimed to be deeply impressed with MSN's content and its potential to improve.

Highfield has departed and MSN's reputation as a key source of news information, even just of entertainment gossip, has barely grown in a period dominated by Twitter.

But Clifton believes MSN's time to get noticed has come. "It's quite hard for us to produce distinctive news when we are up against people who do that on a grand scale. But we can offer a good level of news provision and icing on top."

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