Sunday, October 7, 2007

MSNBC.com Acquires Newsvine for Social Media in the Thick of Hot Discussions

When Seattle-based Newsvine launched in Beta form last January we documented its promise enthusiastically and kept a close eye on it. Not surprisingly so did a number of hot prospects for financing a profitable exit, including MSNBC, which Newsvine has announced in its own story as its new owner. No details are available at this time about the size of the deal or how Newsvine will be integrated into MSNBC.com, but MSNBC News' estimate of USD 75 million seems about right given Newsvine's position in the social news marketplace and there are promises by MSNBC to keep Newsvine an independent entity for now.

It's a pretty good first acquisition for MSNBC.com, which is a humdrum online news portal that trails major outlets for cable news such as CNN.com and Foxnews.com by significant margins and seems to be caught in a major identity crisis. Unlike the online portals for CNN and Fox News, MSNBC.com is obliged to promote the broadcast NBC news properties more than the MSNBC cable unit, drawing away precious attention span to TV shows that have little to do with core online audience demographics. Add in an alliance with Newsweek magazine for feature content and the marketing muddle for the MSNBC.com brand gets no more clear.

Newsvine itself is not a traffic leader in overall visits amongst social news outlets and struggles to build momentum behind an intensely loyal core of news, opinion and bookmark contributors. But unlike other social news outlets Newsvine features a maturing mix of original content along with links to external news stories, a combination that will help MSNBC.com to build inventories of unique destination content and a network of popular online personalities that could be leveraged via MSNBC's cable outlet to build visibility for the community. Newsvine has had a few minor but noteworthy news scoops of its own - a member on the scene of the Virginia Tech shootings broke the initial details of the event - but the strength of the community tends to be a core of contributors who opine on and spin key topics in politics, religion, world events and popular culture. With a reasonable mix of views across the spectrum and the ability for talented writers to expand on their thoughts in their own pieces Newsvine offers a rich mix of content that's sure to complement any mainstream news outlet's offerings if managed effectively.

What Newsvine gets most out of this deal is a parent who's willing to put a little more muscle behind an organization that's been challenged to keep up with itself. With only a staff of six and an editorial policy that requires regular and timely monitoring and intervention by senior Newsvine staff to keep controversial content and comments from spinning out of control Newsvine suffers from the typical startup myopia that keeps it from looking at larger prizes at its disposal. Newsvine's features generally do a good job of promoting engaging content to the attention of its members and its social networking features were well ahead of other social news outlets but its up-only voting system tends to promote content that echoes much of the same controversy-for-controversy's-sake content that one finds in major media outlets. Ironically this may turn out to be a plus when you have a cable news outlet that focuses on much the same sort of stories.

Most major news outlets have been extremely hesitant to embrace social media too closely, a factor that has benefited portals such as Newsvine along the way: when The New York Times closed down its online comments features a few months back Newsvine picked up a good chunk of NYT commenters. With the acquisition of Newsvine established news media outlets may be beginning to recognize that this uneasy balance between social media and their own news is tipping away from their operations, creating loyalties tied to online communities creating and discussiong news that is likely in time to eclipse loyalties to news brands tied to established media channels. It's hardly a one-for-one swapout at this point in time, so the initial decision of MSNBC to keep the Newsvine brand alive as an independent unit is a wise move for now, especially given the typical sensitivities in online communities to being "sold out."

But as audiences empowered as newshounds create and discover a widening range of content their ability to build quality inventory and insights rapidly will eventually find more of today's journalists and commentators becoming professional members of online communities like Newsvine. Social news communities are accelerating in their ability to get their articles good placement in search engine results, a factor that certainly contributed to The New York Times' decision to open up its prime columnists' content to get our from behind their subscription firewall and into the mix of these communities. This transition is still fairly gradual and generational, but essential for ensuring future revenues amongst news audiences becoming used to having their peers help them select what's newsworthy - and worth their attention.
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