Talking Digital Q&A #9: Andrew Hunter, Network Director ninemsn

I first met Andrew years back when I was at Mindshare. We were exploring a content led initiative for a client and Andrew got involved to ensure it didn’t become a piece of dull branded content that the users had no interest in but it appeased the brand manager involved. Through collaboration and lots of insight we created something that not only got great traction with users, but also appeased the client. A win/win scenario. Since then I’ve kept in touch with Andrew as he has an amazing understanding of how media is being consumed across channels, the technology challenges facing publishers and a view of the Australian media world that is hard to beat. He has been a leading driver of the evolution of ninemsn and its position as a leading, innovative content business in Australia, leading a large team of journalists and producers that together control some of the biggest destination sites in Australia.

Lots is happening at Nine Entertainment/ninemsn right now – the amazing ratings success of the block, the introduction of trade brand MI9 and the Summer Olympics coming up in July – so it felt like a good time to ask Andrew a few questions and get his opinion on a bunch of things.

TD: ninemsn has evolved into mi9 – can you explain what this means in terms of product evolution and also benefits to ninemsn users?

AH: Mi9 is natural move for us, but it’s more of a trade/sales story than one for our audience. The joint venture (50/50 Microsoft and Nine Entertainment Co.) had got to the point where a number of diverse businesses were operating under the ninemsn banner that the trade rightfully equated with our network of 80 owned-and-operated sites. These businesses include Cudo, Microsoft Advertising Network (MMN), Microsoft Ad Exchange, Hotmail, Bing, comparison sites Rate City and iSelect, among others. So the new umbrella brand was created to sit across the entire joint venture. ninemsn is a still a massive part of this group and remains our consumer web and mobile brand. In a nutshell, it means something to us, our shareholders and the trade but it’s business as usual for our audience and products.

TD: How have the demands on editors/content producers etc changed over the last 5 years as content becomes ‘format’ agnostic and sites like ninemsn feature content that could be copy/images/video/liveblogging/user comments or something that includes elements of each?

AH: The digitisation of journalism has given producers new avenues to express their creativity. We’ve always made a point of recruiting our news journalists from print and then helped them build video, image production and real-time reporting skills on top of that base. The biggest change has been the demand for analytical and distribution skills. Our producers monitor real-time analytical tools (some they have built themselves) to get a read on the audience and tweak the mix or pitch accordingly. They’re also good at distributing their stories through social media and search. Understanding the way social distribution works, where the levers are and when to pull them are essential components of the producer skill set.  Sharing is the ultimate valuation of a story. The more it gets shared, the more valuable we believe it is to our audience so social is embedded into our editorial workflows and culture.

TD: Which companies do you believe are at the forefront of content creation and delivery in 2012 and why?

AH: Much innovation in content creation is coming from the edges, from individual bloggers and smaller publishers. I like what the Business Spectator crew are doing perhaps as much for the niche they’re occupying and the overall business play as the content, but the journalism is high-value. Crikey is always an interesting read. Gawker’s approach is worth following – Nick Denton is about a year ahead of the pack and wilfully cuts through the crap surrounding digital/social media. The Atlantic has done a great job in journalism and distribution. I admire News Limited’s ability to generate news and know its audience. On the distribution front, Zite on the iPad is excellent. It’s a news aggregator that has exposed me to many of the great small bloggers and publishers covering technology and Silicon Valley, two of my favourite news topics. And while they’re in our stable, I think Nine News TV has aced it on the distribution front. They have ground out a strong position against Seven in part by reeling in audience across the schedule with news story promos. They use social media well too. And at the risk of moving into shameless plug territory, the ninemsn newsroom is one of the most innovative and forward-looking content organisations around. They have made the audience their absolute focus. Users are now a major source of news stories (we tap them for story tips) and the key distributors of our content (through social media).  Our news operation generates more traffic from Facebook than any of our competitors. We’re proud of that.

TD: Sometimes it feels that it’s more viable to create conduits for other people’s content (ie social media, twitter, Facebook) rather than investing in the creation of content? How do you see this working over the next 5-10 years as content creators and content conduits compete for investment and ad revenue?

AH: People who make great content needn’t worry. The money will come.  If not through advertising, then through subscriptions, sponsorships, transactions or endorsements. Distributors need content and will continue to. I think it’s these middle men distributors/publishers who will feel the pinch over time. In video, for example, I think Hulu and NetFlix will get squeezed by the studios/content owners. As insidious as it is, Demand Media created a clever content model that straddles content creation, distribution and media sales. Then there’s the Silicon Valley social crew, such as Facebook, who are making money by advertising against user-generated content but appear to want to stay out of directly monetising professional news content. There are also the aggregators such as Flipboard, Zite and Pulse who are, or will one day, serve ads around the content others are producing. That’s already rankling the content owners/makers.

TD: The Voice has been a huge success both on TV and online. Can you give us an idea of the work involved in trying to create a format that lives so naturally across channels; and do you think this is the future of ‘live entertainment/reality’ type programming (ie – it becomes a cross channel event not a TV show).

AH: I had a chat to our Head of TV and Video, Ben Watts, about this and he says the format has worked so well as a cross-channel  event is because, primarily, the core show is so good. Nine and Shine have taken almost every aspect to the next level – from the calibre of coaches, to the production values, to the volume of great behind-the-scenes video content and the level of social media integration. It has been the most demanding TV integration ninemsn has worked on, but also by far the most rewarding and successful. We are currently working with Nine to raise the bar a little bit higher still with the rebirth later this year of the original ‘multi-media event’, Big Brother.

TD: The London Olympics is the first time in a long time 9 has broadcast the summer Olympics … what does ninemsn have planned and how important will ninemsn be to 9’s Olympic coverage?

AH: We’re throwing the kitchen sink at the Olympics because Nine has the rights and the time zone works well for us. The timing is great because we have the catch-up TV web streaming rights on a six-hour delay so all the big overnight races will be ready to view each morning at ninemsn. We’re integrating with Nine’s coverage from TODAY through the schedule. We will have a team producing original video content in London alongside the Nine TV guys and bulked-up team in Sydney running our Olympics site around the clock for the 17 days of the Games. We’ve been alongside Nine from the start on editorial planning, logistics and sales. All of the Olympic partners and sponsors are working with the group across web and TV. It’s going to be huge.



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