Richard Wolffe: The Making of the New MSNBC.com

Aimed as an extension and complement of the MSNBC TV on-air brand, the relaunched msnbc.com features MSNBC show video and content, original reporting and analysis, and interactive discussions throughout. Innovative, immersive, and impactful, msnbc.com is designed to be an engaging user experience for MSNBC’s passionate community.

In addition, Vice President and Executive Editor Richard Wolffe has assembled a top-notch team of journalists whose incisive original reporting will shed light on the news of the day, as well as the key issues that are of top priority to the politically-minded. The site also features enhanced show pages, providing users with the opportunity to interact with their favorite MSNBC programs and hosts.

Comcast caught up with Wolffe before launch to discuss the process around rebuilding the msnbc.com digital brand.

Q: As MSNBC's unique voice evolved into what it has become today, it became clear the brand needed its own online home, separate from NBC News. Talk about the evolution of these two sites and the difference between NBCNews.com and MSNBC.com.

Wolffe: Our evolution follows the path of MSNBC itself. In its early years, it was intended as a cable news version of NBC News, and the old msnbc.com reflected that general news sensibility. But in the last several years we have found our voice and built a passionate audience that Leans Forward. For the last few years, MSNBC's president Phil Griffin has been determined to create a website that is the home for this growing audience. We're not trying to be a portal–style space for the general news consumer. We want to bring the spirit of MSNBC into this new space, building the ways and means for the community to come together. To make that happen, we first had to unwind the original digital joint venture between Microsoft and NBC News: a herculean effort in itself. That allowed us to turn the old MSNBC website into NBCNews.com, and begin creating something entirely new for MSNBC itself. 

Q: You decided to beta the site live for several weeks. How did you arrive at that decision, and what type of feedback did you received prior to launch?

Wolffe: This has been a complex and accelerated project. We had no digital home for MSNBC – no website at all for a major media brand in 2012 and 2013 – and we needed to rectify that as quickly as possible. At the same time, we wanted to be distinctive, original and broad in scope. It wasn't enough just to publish video and stories. We wanted to launch a community site in the Facebook and Twitter era, and that meant starting our own social network too. Testing was vital. We performed more than 12,000 QA tests before we moved into a public beta, so we had a good sense of what was working and what wasn't. We supplemented that with 43 focus group interviews in five cities. But there are many things you cannot test until significant numbers of real people come into contact with the system. The public preview gave us a chance to improve performance, fix bugs and evolve the user experience before reclaiming our name as msnbc.com.  The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive for what is a bold design for a news site. More important is the fact that the user data – in terms of page views, unique visitors and video streams – have shown a big lift. That all gave us the confidence to move ahead with a full launch as msnbc.com.

Q: There's clearly an emphasis on live streaming and video content. What's the breakdown of video compared to traditional written content, and how much of it is unique as opposed to wire stories or video one could consume elsewhere?

Wolffe: We value video very highly: it's what MSNBC does best, what our audience loves most, and what our clients demand most. Our video is either drawn from MSNBC TV or commissioned as digital originals. For the first time ever you can search our archive of video clips by issue and/or show on the Watch page, giving access to tens of thousands of great videos. We're also very excited by the integration of MSNBC Now: the authenticated live stream and full episodes. That's a very compelling offering for our audience. We're looking forward to integrating the experience much more as we evolve all our digital spaces. However, video is not enough. Our audience also wants to dig deep into the issues. To achieve that, we have recruited top-quality reporters and editors to cover the core stories that fire up our audience. We don't use wire stories. But our photo desk does make extensive use of agency photos because we want to have a strong visual impact, in keeping with the visual connection of MSNBC on TV. 

Q. How are you planning on engaging readers online, and how have you layered in social media with the new experience?

Wolffe: We want to be a platform for activity, not just a publisher of great video, stories and photos. So we have built this from the beginning as a social network. Users have profile pages. They can follow one another, organize themselves into groups, as well as following shows and issues. It's very organic. We place comments high on every page, and encourage users to comment in smaller threads within groups. You can search the entire community in our Join In section, filtering for TV staff, regular users, groups or activist organizations. And we have an entire section of our top navigation – Speak Out – devoted to easy engagement by taking polls or quick commenting on a quote from someone notable. On top of that, we have made sharing to external social networks really easy by placing share buttons on every thumbnail, story and video across the site.

Q: The site architecture of MSNBC.com leverages responsive design. How has this relaunch enhanced the mobile experience? 

Wolffe: We have been focused on the touch-screen experience from the beginning, looking at every design through the lens of mobile-optimized and mobile-first. We weren't slaves to a mobile-first approach because 80% of our traffic is still on desktop and a mobile-first approach can lead to some really poor desktop designs. However I personally feel that the mobile experience is one of our very best. Our home page is a scroll of 10 big stories rather than a page of 100 links, and that is best experienced as a touch-screen scroll. To enter our comments space there is a left/right swipe, that is again best experienced on touch screens. Responsive designs involve complex design decisions and coding. But the results are really worth it. We publish once across many screen sizes, devices and platforms. Given the rapid growth of devices, I don't know how digital media companies can thrive without responsive design.