Ten years? It’s got to be 100.
Just as “dog years” are used to compare canine lifespans with those of humans, “Internet years” seem the proper yardstick for measuring the decade since MSNBC.com first fanned its peacock feathers and began its uncertain flight into cyberspace.
How else to explain what seems like a lifetime of change, innovation and major news since then?
As Merrill Brown, MSNBC.com’s first editor-in-chief, puts it:
“You think about the simplicity of blogging, where Arianna Huffington can sit and publish to the Web in 60 seconds, and the hoops we had to go through to publish, and it’s breathtaking how far it’s come.”
To fully appreciate the journey, travel back to late 1995, when executives at Microsoft and NBC agreed to create an online news service paired with a cable news channel, both to be known by the eye-chart acronym MSNBC.
The Dec. 14 announcement left just seven months to assemble a news organization that would marry television, technology, words, photos, audio and graphics in a unique way for a young medium.
As new faces arrived almost daily, management struggled to sort out how the site would be run. “We hadn’t even figured out some things as basic as whether we would staff 24-7," recalls Brown.
Then, three weeks before launch, the site's Web address was shut down for a full day when the domain registrar misplaced a $100 payment.
Despite these complications, MSNBC.com made its official debut as scheduled on July 15, 1996 — though most of you will have to take our word for it since the site initially was largely unavailable.
Only four or five servers were dedicated to the site, and they were quickly overwhelmed by the opening day traffic, says Rich Lappenbusch, director of operations at the time. (Today, 127 servers keep the site running.)
“The cable channel and the Internet site were supposed to launch simultaneously, but when the time came the site wasn’t universally available,” recalls Andy Beers, then executive producer for news. “… I picked up the phone and on the other end was (NBC President) Bob Wright shouting, ‘Why isn’t the Web site up?’… I handed the phone to Keith (Rowe, the director of technology) and said, ‘It’s for you.’”
Additional server power was quickly harnessed, and over the next few hours the rest of the world got its first peek at the newcomer aiming to challenge early online leader CNN.com.
Greeting viewers on that first day was a new poll showing President Bill Clinton widening his lead over Republican challenger Bob Dole — a lead-up to NBC Nightly News anchor Tom Brokaw’s live interview with Clinton scheduled that evening, which was to include questions submitted by MSNBC.com users.
Just two days later, breaking news put the site to the acid test when TWA Flight 800 crashed into the Atlantic Ocean.
‘We were frantic’
“We were frantic,” Brown recalls. “We did not know how to deal with a story of that scale. ... We didn’t know how to build maps so we were literally taking pictures of maps.”
"Our ability to publish quickly was still very limited," adds Beers. "You could write a story, but it would take 15 or 20 minutes before it would make it onto the site.”
Even so, the horrific story, and the Atlanta Olympic Games that quickly followed, demonstrated the potential of Internet news delivery and began a tradition that was to become a hallmark of the site: the use of large, powerful photos to tell stories.
As impressive as the technology could be, it also had its Icarus moments.
Video download in the dial-up age, for example, was narcolepsy-inducing.
Dean Wright, a senior producer in the early days and later the site's second editor-in-chief, recalls a video of a jet explosion that "looked more like a slide show than anything that had moving images.”
There also were aggravating “crashes” of the proprietary publishing system and heavy traffic continued to occasionally render the site unreachable.
“In the 1996 elections, I believe the site crashed almost instantly,” Wright remembers. “We got better in 1998. … It lasted a little bit longer before going under.”
Other difficulties had a more human dimension.
One was the challenge of getting software designers, networking experts and journalists from print, television and radio to communicate.
“At Microsoft, we were very used to thinking about building a product that you’d work on for three years and then drop it and sell it to the world,” says Rowe. “The news people came in and were used to turning around a product every 24 hours or every few hours.”
New language evolves
In an attempt to bridge those two cultures, a strange new language evolved, one in which terms like “hot dog,” “fast prop” and “granularity” were interspersed with actual English words.
The meeting of the tribes also gave rise to strange new rituals. For a time, a large metal gong was struck each time the site was “published.” This practice lasted until an aggravated employee ripped it off the wall.
Another workflow regulator was a traffic light set up in the newsroom. It blinked green and red to tell editors when they could — and could not — use the publishing tool.
“Generally we were on a four-hour production cycle … a time lapse that at the time seemed outlandish to those of us who came from TV or radio,” says Reed Price, a former senior producer.
Possibly the oddest indicator was a rubber chicken used to signal who, among the editors seated at a long news desk, was actually producing the cover page, giving rise to an oft-repeated question, “Who’s got the chicken?”
Occasional “artistic differences” also led to some memorable shouting matches, the breaking of the reinforced newsroom door and one of the most caustic resignation letters ever written, a widely circulated e-mail that included the salutation, “You phony pissant.”
Some of the differences also may have been reflected in the product, which didn’t initially speak to users with a clear voice.
Critics initially unimpressed
Media critics of the time complained about the site’s “dreamy, indistinct look” and navigational difficulties. In January 1997, an American Journalism Review straw poll showed MSNBC.com running a distant 28th among “news-oriented Web sites.”
But a significant shift in the consumption of news was occurring, and as the Internet exploded in popularity, so did MSNBC.com. Three months later, Internet audience researcher PC Meter reported that MSNBC.com had risen to the no. 1 spot among general news sites. Since then, MSNBC.com has rarely relinquished the top spot among online TV news sites.
Journalistically, too, the site flourished, its work acknowledged with top awards from the National Press Club, the Online News Association, Editor and Publisher and the Radio-Television News Directors' Association, among others.
Looking back it seems there was an unending flow of major news: Terrorism, natural disaster, war, impeachment, one of the closest presidential elections in U.S. history, notorious legal cases and much more.
There were scoops as well, including the death of Deng Xiaoping, massive thefts of credit card and identity information, shortcomings of the Transportation Security Administration, not to mention the Scoop — Jeannette Walls' daily must-read gossip column.
Drama in the field
For our staff, there were dramas in the field, though thankfully no casualties:
- Business reporter Martin Wolk was attending a conference at the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. After evacuating, he filed one of the earliest first-person accounts of the terrorist attacks when he was able to get through to his mother on the phone, had her call the news desk on a second phone and then dictate a story as she held the two phones together.
- With NATO jets bombing Belgrade in April 1999, reporter Preston Mendenhall was arrested and then deported by Serb troops who saw him compiling data for an interactive map of the city and took him for a spy.
- Reporter Kari Huus was in the right place at the right time on two separate occasions: Once when she was on the streets of Jakarta the night that Indonesian President Suharto was overthrown and again when there was a major earthquake in Taiwan.
- Staffers Michael Moran and Frank Barbieri were detained in the Gaza Strip by Palestinian forces who saw them snapping photos. They were released after handing over a blank audiotape that they told their captors was the “film” from their digital camera.
And sometimes the drama came calling:
- A meeting of the World Trade Organization erupted into three days of riots that became known as the “Battle for Seattle” in December 1999. In covering the violence, political reporter Tom Curry and photographer Jennifer Loomis were repeatedly doused by tear gas, including one barrage that caught Curry in the middle of a phone interview.
- A 6.8 magnitude earthquake rocked the Puget Sound area on Feb. 28, 2001, sending reporters and editors in the Redmond newsroom scrambling under their desks. Fortunately, generators kicked in and the site stayed online.
- There were two rounds of layoffs, in September 1997 when 40 people left and in December 2001, when 18 people departed. Staffing levels have grown since then, but at just under 200 employees, MSNBC.com is still below its 1996 high.
When did that happen, again?
Other events raced past so fast that we barely slowed down to take notice:
- The site was redesigned twice, in 1997 and 2003.
- Video came of age, with tens of millions of individual clips watched each month.
- Co-productions with NBC News and MSNBC TV intensified, from "Dateline NBC" asking viewers to become an online jury in 1999 to NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Williams launching his own blog in 2005.
- Site production extended to Europe, with a team of journalists based in London, and to Asia, with a team of developers located in Shanghai.
- "Artistic differences" continued, as well. During the 2003 redesign, style guidelines were posted in the rest rooms. Insurgents responded with their own publication, the Toilet Terrorista.
And through it all, the tools got better, the business climate improved, the company became profitable, and the news kept us hopping.
So now we arrive at the beginning of our second decade, a more mature organization, battle-tested and well-schooled in agility.
And where will we end up 10 years from now?
“I always refuse to predict more than about six months down the road, because in our business a year is an eternity,” says Managing Editor Jennifer Sizemore. “But I can confidently say that we will continue to be at the forefront of innovation — whether it's new ways to deliver information or new ways to tell stories.
“OK, let me put one out there. Ten years from now? I'm betting the Pulitzer Committee will have awakened and realized it's the 21st century, and be awarding prizes for great journalism — not just great newspapers. I expect we'll have a couple.”
Projects editor Mike Brunker has worked at MSNBC.com since a month after its launch in 1996.