It's really called a huddle but we are so whacky and new media here we call it The Cuddle," laughs Matthew Ball, as he heads off into a corner of the newsroom and gathers his staff about him. Then in a circular space, looking out towards Buckingham Palace, Microsoft's British editor-in-chief, addresses his team of news, entertainment, motoring and business journalists, as they seek to become major players in the British news media.
Microsoft's content portal, MSN, has 19.9m unique users a month in the UK (more than any of the big British newspaper websites), but it craves to be taken more seriously as a news provider. Its journalists, Ball argues during an interview in a nearby office, do far more than simply reproduce, or aggregate, other people's work. These multi-skilled MSN journalists, have not just a "nose for news" but a "passion for technology", he says. "Our editors edit videos and podcasts, they select images, Photoshop them and put together a whole package themselves, then track how well it performs and report back on how they're doing versus the targets we have for the site."
When Bill Gates and Paul Allen founded Microsoft 34 years ago, they didn't envisage it being a news organisation. Yet other news providers should be taking MSN seriously, particularly if they believe they can start charging for their content.
Ball says his targets are being met. MSN's home page is the most viewed in Britain after Google and the BBC. But a real sign of progress is the impact of specialist channels such as MSN Entertainment, which outperforms all British music and showbiz sites, and MSN Cars, which was recently named "automotive website of the year" by British motoring journalists and public relations officers.
Despite the Cuddle, Microsoft's fifth floor newsroom is not trying to be a funky workplace. There is a marked contrast to the deck-chairs and bean bags of the Google offices, a short walk away across London's Victoria. MSN Entertainment's patch is marked out by posters of The Strokes and Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the BBC News channel is much in evidence.
MSN is not known for breaking stories. Can it really claim to do original journalism? "Yes, we do get out of the office," says Ball. "Our music editor James Hurley (hired from lastminute.com) is out meeting musicians who are releasing new albums or singles. He might do a text interview with them he might do something that turns into a podcast or a video. Our movies editor Ed Holden (formerly of DVD Review magazine) will be out reviewing the latest movies."
More established news players may not be quaking in their boots but for the last two years, MSN has been short-listed by the Association of Online Publishers as digital publisher of the year in the consumer category, losing out to the Telegraph group and Sky respectively. This is pleasing to Peter Bale, Microsoft's UK executive producer, who arrived just over two years ago from News International where he oversaw the TimesOnline site for The Times and The Sunday Times. "The thing which is not immediately visible to most people in the media," complains Bale, a veteran Reuters journalist who covered Westminster and Bucharest for the global news agency, "is the extent to which we create our own content."
He estimates that 80% of material on MSN Cars is original, and says traffic to MSN News has grown by 50% in each of the last two years. "We have an evolving approach to news that is based around immediacy and a mission to explain," he says. "We can't go out and compete on scale with a major news provider but we can compete by bringing explanatory information, maps, more pictures, discussion, adding value to the news package."
Among the devices MSN deploys to bring stories to life are Deep Zoom, which allows users to explore imagery in greater detail. The device was used in covering the death of Michael Jackson, offering users a digital mosaic portrait of the singer comprised of tiny iconic images which could be viewed in close up. "You can zoom in and play around with it," Ball says, calling it up on his laptop. "That went viral on Twitter the following day."
A similar partnership with the Shropshire software firm ShootHill offered MSN users a map of Britain from which they could examine which MPs had claimed most in expenses.
With multi-skilled staff capable of devising an editorial concept and seeing it to fruition, Bale accepts there is a need in the system for checks and balances. "We have introduced a reasonably robust system of copy editing because what you get with everybody being an expert is that everybody has tremendous power in being able to publish anything. We've invested quite a lot in training in ethics and copy-editing, laying down pretty good ground rules," he says. Some of MSN's young new media professionals have had little experience of seeing their work edited by a colleague. "When you have a lot of younger inexperienced people you've got to give them framework, training and support," says Bale. "My worry is defamation, which is a big risk in the UK. We've invested in defamation training, making people relaxed about having their copy edited."
Bale clearly has ambitions in overseas news coverage, pointing out that a British MSN journalist covered the Pakistani elections last year, but this was a rare deployment. "Budgetary things have got in the way of us doing much more of that at this point but it's an area I want to keep open."
Microsoft has not been immune to the economic downturn, and made redundancies earlier in the year, including two in the newsroom. "We are looking to expand and build again," counters Ball. MSN's news operation was set up in 1995 by three former newspaper journalists, Geoff Sutton, Chris Ward and Andrew Hawken. Its numbers have grown to 35 staff, or 50 including contractors. It remains a small team but, while other news organisations are cutting, MSN is growing from the ground up.
There is no likelihood that MSN will seek to charge users for its content and newspapers, as they debate charging for online content, should note the internet giant's growing presence in the field. Pop band Take That have already got the message, using MSN to launch a recent release. "The way record labels and movie houses talk to us about exclusives strongly suggests that we are already a major player in those categories," says Ball proudly before he leaves to conduct The Cuddle, which sounds touchy-feely but then convenes with a rallying cry: "Shall we get cracking?"
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