For several years now, Microsoft has been trying to establish itself as a player in the news information business. Its MSN site already attracts an impressive 28 million monthly unique United Kingdom visitors, according to ComScore, putting it third only to Google and Facebook. The great majority are just cursory visitors and MSN, with its newsroom of 70 journalists and content creators, is still a very long way off being a serious competitor to Britain's big online news providers, such as the BBC, the Daily Mail and The Guardian.
But the will is there, and Peter Clifton, who previously ran the BBC's news and sports websites, was tempted to move to Microsoft earlier this year to transform MSN. Last week, he unveiled the first phase, revamping MSN with extra video content and a simpler design.
His 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. "They cover entertainment 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, 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". It might not be the sort of thing that will have fearless story-getters such as Alex Crawford from Sky News pinging 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.
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 the former cricketer Darren Gough and the ex-footballer Matt Holland. Clifton is hiring two more experienced television producers to improve the quality of their video clips, and a crew was sent to the red carpet in Leicester Square for the London premiere of the film Twilight.
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 to not 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 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 has come. "It's quite hard for us to produce a whole range of completely distinctive news when we are up against people who do that on a grand scale," he admits. "But we can offer a good level of news provision and icing on the top."