It’s the kind of horrific news story that fills viewers and news teams with dread: A commercial airliner has exploded in flames and plunged into the ocean with more than 200 people aboard. The nervous anchor puts his hand to his earpiece and stares to the side as if to will more details out of the control room. But too many reporters are down in Atlanta to cover the Olympics; no one can seem to get any witnesses to the crash on the phone; the producers are even having trouble creating a map of Long Island to locate the site for viewers. Finally, in desperation, the anchor holds a Rand McNally road atlas up to the camera and points with his finger to where the plane is reported to have gone down.
This is the news? No, this is MSNBC (www.msnbc.com on the Internet; on TV, check your local cable system). Two days after its much-hyped launch, the new joint cable TV/Internet venture between NBC and Microsoft endured a literal trial by fire when TWA Flight 800 went down — and it burned its fingers in the process.
To be fair, an efficient, flexible news organization is not built in a day — or two. The new channel’s prime competition, CNN, weathered years of derision as the ”Chicken Noodle Network” before it proved that a 24-hour news channel was not only rational but necessary. But MSNBC means to jump-start its professionalism by drawing upon the 40-year experience of its TV partner; the ads themselves boast, ”The future of news from the people you know,” over head shots of Katie Couric, Tom Brokaw, and the rest of the gang. They’re not kidding, either; as the minutes ticked by — and as local New York news outlets and CNN consistently one-upped MSNBC with witnesses, Coast Guard spokesmen, a conference with a TWA vice president, and, yes, electronic maps — anchor Brian Williams was forced to fall back on NBC aviation reporter Robert Hager in an Atlanta pressroom and White House correspondent Andrea Mitchell (who reported that President Clinton was…sad). True, MSNBC was the first national news outlet to break the story by several minutes, and, thanks to its local affiliate, it was able to air helicopter footage of the crash site before rival CNN, but those were the rare coups in a dodgy evening.
There’s more to news than breaking stories, of course. There’s the day-in day-out grind of on-the-fly reporting and news-show production, at which the new venture seems smoothly competent. More personality driven than its rival, MSNBC gives stalwarts like somber Ann Curry, puckish John Gibson, and up-and-coming Williams valuable airtime, and it doesn’t fall into the deja vu-inducing loop of repeating the same stories over and over again. More crucially, though, there’s the Internet: If MSNBC gives NBC the chance to play in CNN’s yard, it also enables Microsoft’s ever-ambitious Bill Gates to hang out with the exclusive East Coast-media boys’ club.
http://www.msnbc.com is designed as both a complement to the cable channel’s coverage and a stand-alone news service, and the site’s two-part structure reflects that dichotomy. ”On-Air” touts and adds depth to the channel’s 14- to 17-hour daily schedule (it will go round the clock at an unspecified date); you can ask Louis Farrakhan questions online when MSNBC’s Ed Gordon interviews him, or get more information pertaining to Williams’ report on a flawed measles vaccine, or, most impressively, burrow deeper into the various cyberspatial areas that the nightly show The Site profiles.
The other half of MSNBC on the Web is ”The News” — really the Microsoft Network’s old online news outlet given a larger staff and a generic title. Here’s where you went if you wanted more on the TWA crash: an index of audio and video clips, a passenger list, links to the FAA’s database and a special FBI site, and so forth. Here, too, is a full-blown Olympics site: chats, clips, standings, diaries, and an extremely cool 3-D visual of the Olympic Village. The content is a mix of Associated Press reporting and, now, dispatches from MSNBC correspondents. When all is said and done, however, there’s not much that differentiates MSNBC from CNN Interactive or USA Today online, websites that offer as much depth with less hype. If anything, MSNBC online ignores the Internet’s raison d’etre — communication. There are no bulletin boards and few ways to connect with people other than by responding to the ”Question of the Day.”
But MSNBC isn’t really interested in what you think. Like other corporate websites, it seeks to preserve a news-from-on-high perspective that goes against the Internet’s democratic nature. Yes, MSNBC online is a solid online news presence, but it’s still old cereal in a new bowl — and it hasn’t even figured out how to utilize TV’s immediacy (the website didn’t report the 8:48 p.m. TWA crash until midnight — 2 hours and 23 minutes after the cable channel did). Of course, if MSNBC truly wants to be taken seriously, it had better work on utilizing TV’s immediacy for TV. The cable channel: B- The website: B