Power Of The Peacock? NBC Digital’s Nick Ascheim On His 'Coalition Of The Eager,' 'Near News' And Reaching 1 Billion Video Starts
What is NBC?
The 90-year-old, radio-born NBC brand, one of the strongest in the media business, means a slew of different things to different people. As Nick Ascheim, NBC News Digital’s still relatively new head charts an ambitious 2017 course, he’ll be doing lots of defining. He revealed his “Three Pillars” strategy within the company – to a group he now calls NBC’s Digital Coalition — in a town hall a couple of weeks ago, and now talks about it here in depth.
Ascheim, NBC News senior vice president of digital, is no stranger to large, sharp-elbowed media companies. On the job one year, he’s worked inside the matrix, with stints at the New York Times, BBC and the Associated Press. He’s used to companies with all kinds of reporting lines – dotted and straight, and often invisible — running every which way. Big companies mean big resources, but also pose big challenges to innovation and time-to-market speed.
Here, we focus on longer-term strategic thinking, but in the meantime, the company – like its peers – is moving to rationalize its assets and priorities, in a tough digital advertising environment. Just this morning, the company said it was shutting down its Seattle-based Breaking News operation and alerting app and eliminating 20 jobs. The app – popular with newsies as it promised “breaking news 14 minutes faster than other apps, on average” – didn’t turn a profit.
First published at POLITICO Media on Dec. 8, 2016
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In its passing, we can also see immediate tangible evidence of Ascheim’s editorial vision: “We can’t cover everything so we’re going to be very judicious about what we cover. We’re going to try to own our story lines. We’ll pick a handful, and we will go deep in those story lines. That means we’ll have to either give very cursory treatment to some of the breaking news that’s happening in the world or even sometimes ignore it.
Ascheim faces an organization challenge different from some of his peer competition. While Nick Ascheim’s puzzle is multi-dimensional, its sits on a great foundation. NBC starts 2017 as a top 10 news company.
NBC News claims fifth place in overall digital U.S. audience, with 110 million unique visitors in October, as seen below. While the New York Times, Washington Post, Fox News, CBS News and CNN all saw 20%+ increases in gross audience over 2016, NBC News counted 7%. In the competition to come, we will better understand why Ascheim sees his competition for audience and advertisers well beyond the traditional bounds of the TV sector. “I don’t care about ABC, CBS, or Fox,” he told me.
NBC News Digital Ranks Fifth in Overall U.S. Audience
Source: Comscore U.S. Multiplatform Survey
In this astounding news year, NBC saw its share of highs and lows. Anchor Lester Holt’s debate moderation got mainly positive reviews and reporter Katy Tur’s work stood out by standing up to candidate Donald Trump’s bullying. Then, there was Today host Matt Lauer’s not-read-for-prime time Clinton-Trump Forum. The long run of the campaign, then, showed the several sides of NBC.
There’s NBC News on TV, both harder-hitting shows like “NBC Nightly News” and lighter fare like “Today.” Both have digital units that fit under NBC News Digital. Then, there’s NBCNews.com, liberated four years go from the long-time problematically partnered MSNBC.com site, when Comcast, NBC’s parent, bought out Microsoft’s share of the pioneering news site.
There’s the TV operation of MSNBC, a number three cable news player, and a platform that NBC News chairman Andy Lack, Ascheim’s boss, is still figuring out.
There’s “news” of course, and a rising NBC News that doesn’t have the firepower of its text-based competitors. Then, there’s what Ascheim likes to call “near news.”
Add it all up, and it’s a boatload of potential and of identity issues. As he moves NBC News Digital forward, Ascheim faces fundamental questions. What’s its plan to get to one billion video starts by the end of next year? How does the newest NBC want its audiences – its digital audiences – to now think about it? How does it port its legacy authority better into the digital world? Those are the top-level challenges for Ascheim. In our interview, edited for clarity and length, we talked about that identity and his plans for 2017.
Ken Doctor: How many people came to the town hall?
Nick Ascheim: There were about 175 in the room. Then there were another probably 75 on the phone. We actually live-streamed this one internally for the first time. We call it the Digital Coalition.
KD: Tell me about the Digital Coalition. Is it a coalition of the willing?
NA: It’s a coalition of the eager. The Digital Coalition, the email distribution list at this point is 350 people and growing. I was originally going to call it The Digital Diaspora just because if you can be alliterative, you should. We decided Coalition was better.
KD: That’s a great straight-line, dotted-line kind of word.
NA: It is a good word, and there are no lines involved. It basically is the grouping of people. It’s more like concentric circles then it is dotted lines. It’s all the people that literally sit inside the digital budget and thus, one way or another, ultimately report up to me plus all the people who either work exclusively for the good of digital or devote some part of their time to the good of digital. Increasingly, we’ve added people who just care about it, which is even the more fun part.
KD: How many people in your specific division?
NA: It’s about 180, with roughly 100 of those who are journalists/editors/video journalists. The rest are product, social, partnerships, etc. The technology group reports up to the CTO, who is my peer. There are another 65-70 or so technology people.
On the emerging role of NYC-centric technology
KD: Of those six dozen tech people, are they working physically in your group?
NA: So they work exclusively for my group, but they don’t work in my group.
KD: We should talk about embedding. I spent a half-day at the Washington Post on Monday. They now have 70 technologists embedded in the newsroom. Are you moving in the embedded direction?
NA: That’s reflective of the trend you’re seeing in smart media companies all over the place now, including ours.… I know we’re not where we want to be, but we’re heading in that direction. The technology team being in Seattle is an outgrowth or a leftover artifact of the original Microsoft deal.
KD: All 65-70?
NA: No, no, but the majority at this point. But we are over time starting to shift those positions here.
KD: It takes time to move these things.
NA: It does take time, and we’re not shutting down the office or anything like that but just as positions become available or as we create new positions, we’re going to hire them in New York. Particularly the front end. The reason I want the front-end developers here is exactly what the Post is doing. I want them close to the people who are creating the content, and that’s both product people as well as journalists.
I do want them physically sitting with one another as much as we possibly can….If we have a big series like the United States of Trump, you need to be able to use template [for the more magazine-like interactive design and presentation].
KD: Indeed. Earlier this year, I wrote how about the New York Times had figured out those kinds of templates, and put them into a toolbox. It’s a long, sometimes painful process to turn that kind of storytelling into a repeatable routine.
NA: I was there when we did that …. It’s been very painful. We are getting better. We used technology on Election Day that this organization had never used before. We updated the voting results without the page having to refresh. It’s a little nerve-wracking to roll something like that out the day that is that important, but we got it right. It feels like we should’ve been there 20 years ago as an industry.
KD: It does seem like this stuff is finally coming together for a dozen top news organizations or so — the ability to really use digital to tell stories.
NA: Yes. In some ways, TV and digital are in their kind of DNA slightly more closely aligned than print and digital were, having been in both places. TV is about immediacy …. When we were starting Foxnews.com [Ascheim served as editorial director 1996-1998), I used to say that the internet was the immediacy of TV with the depth of print. That was more of an aspiration at that point. Now it’s reality.
KD: Let’s talk about your three pillars.
Video: The First Pillar
NA: So the first pillar is what we call video dominance. The word dominance obviously conjures up many things. It does not mean that we need to be the single largest of anybody in the industry measured by streams or starts. I think scale is clearly overrated and no longer a business strategy. I think it leads to bad editorial decisions. What it does mean, is we need to be the best.
That is something that NBC News has aspired to be in video since it started. That extends absolutely to where we want to be digitally. That means being the best on our own platforms, what we refer to as “on-deck”, as well as “off-deck,” which means we have to get good at social video and social video is many different things depending on the platform now. We have to be good at Facebook. We have to be good at Snapchat. We have to be good — if we want to be global — we have to be good on other platforms like Line and Kik. We can’t just think about the big players. We have to think about a variety of players. There’s a number of different components that go into dominance including the decision we made back in, end of last year of 2015, to turn off auto-play, which we can get back to in a minute.
KD: I thank you on behalf of people everywhere.
NA: The good news on that one is that when we turned off auto-play on-deck, meaning on our own platforms, we were doing sort of between 110-120 million starts a month. We took a 40-45% hit right after we turned off auto-play. Thanks in part to the election and thanks in part to exactly what I just said, understanding what consumers want, we’ve seen those numbers steadily go back up. In November this year, we just did about 106 million. In October 2015, we did 110 million streams with auto-play on.
The other fun number to throw out there as we’re talking about dominance is, in January of 2016, so the very beginning of this year, we were doing about 200 million off-deck. That’s Facebook, and our partners like AOL and MSN, SnapChat. You add it all up. In November we did about 450-460 million. We more than doubled where we were off-deck.
KD: Let’s say that goes back to 400 or so after the election.
NA: I think that number is going to keep going up. It was affected by the election, but it was also affected by what we were doing with Today. There’s a lot of lifestyle video. I’m getting ahead of myself here because I’m only on the first pillar of the strategy, but we’ve launched a new vertical on nbcnews.com called Mach, which is about celebrating the future. It’s about human endeavor, human innovation. It’s an optimistic look at what’s coming in. technology, at the things that technology will do for us. We’re trying to increase our output that goes what I call the near news. We’re back to concentric circles again. Hard news is our core center, politics, and what’s happening in the world, terrorism, cyber-warfare those sorts of things.
KD: So that means in terms of numbers it was 500 for off-platform so basically 5:1 off-platform.
NA: Yeah. It’s about that.
KD: What do you think will grow fastest?
NA: By the end of 2017, I want a doubled on-deck starts and tripled off-deck starts. Now I made that declaration further back in this year so the number we’d be tripling would be closer to like 350 million. I really want to get to a billion starts.
NA: Off-platform and I want to get to about 200 million, a little more, on-platform.
KD: In terms of numbers, do you want to be within news organizations top three in terms of video numbers?
NA: If I added everything up all together, yeah, I think top three feels right.
KD: Yeah. Right. So who is the main competition?
NA: So this is where things get a little confusing. As we just said, we have news, near-news, and lifestyle. The big behemoth right now is CNN in a pure news environment. I don’t think of CNN really as having lifestyle brands.
KD: They have a several niches.
NA: Yeah. Here and there. That may change. We’ll see. We have our partners in the world like Vox and Buzzfeed. [NBCUniversal has now put $400 million into Buzzfeed and $200 million into Vox Media]. Buzzfeed is certainly massive when it comes to video starts, but most of that is driven by things like Tasty. I don’t really see that as competitive. To a degree with Today, sure, but it really is … I think Buzzfeed would look at Tastemade as their number one competitor. They’re certainly not looking at news organizations. This is why the competition matters but it doesn’t occupy my thoughts. It’s not what I wake up worrying about in the middle of the night.
KD: But you look at the legacy competition, people would still say, and we would say, “ABC. CBS. Fox.”
NA: I don’t care about ABC, CBS, or Fox.
KD: Just not at all?
KD: And the reason is?
NA: Because I don’t think any of them are doing transformative, and I don’t think that they look for loyalty. I think they look for big. ABC tied up with Yahoo so then it’s just about the fire-hose. CBS, to some degree, is across the board thinking a great deal about this. As I said before, sometimes it’s about how you deliver it and sometimes it’s about the content. I think CBS is very focused on the delivery side of things.
KD: So who would your peer set be?
NA: There’s competition, and there’s organizations that I look to for inspiration and for “we need to be more like that.” I think when it comes to both loyalty and transformative, I think you’ve got to go with the Times on that one. I think the Washington Post is right now best in class in trying to figure out how to marry up great content with great delivery. Bezos came right in and immediately hired a bunch of journalists but also a really solid bunch of technology people. I think that’s something to be respected.
When it comes to quality and transformative, I think Quartz has done a phenomenal job. I think that newsroom under Kevin [Delaney] is as good as any you’re going to find. I think CNN is, in many cases, they deserve a tip of the hat. They really do. I look at what they’ve done on pure coverage standpoint and just flooding the zone with resources.
Transformative: The Second Pillar
KD: What’s the second priority?
NA: The second piece of the strategy, from a grammar standpoint, doesn’t fit, but it’s okay, we’re sticking with it anyway, which is transformative. The idea is we need to tell transformative stories. I don’t want to do commodity journalism. I want to do memorable journalism. I want to do journalism that changes the way people think about the world. It sounds, as I said before, it sounds very old-fashioned, but I really want to do this the way you’re supposed to do it. I think aiming for size and scale makes you look for clicks, which makes you do things that are of questionable value when it comes to journalism.
I started saying this long before the election, but I think it is absolutely even more so true now. We are entering some of the most transformative times in human history. If you think about technology, if you think about the way the politics is playing out, global relations, cyber warfare, the world is going to be as different for my children when they are adults as really another other period of history over the next 50 years.
Our job is to tell the kinds of stories that need to be told to reflect what’s happening in the world. This is an unbelievably ambitious goal with a newsroom that isn’t the size of the Washington Post or the New York Times, which means we have to make really careful choices. We can’t cover everything so we’re going to be very judicious about what we cover. We’re going to try to own our story lines. We’ll pick a handful and we will go deep in those story lines. That means we’ll have to either give very cursory treatment to some of the breaking news that’s happening in the world or even sometimes ignore it.
KD: Let’s talk about resources. When you say, “I want us journalists to do this,” the journalists, how many journalists report to you? How does that whole thing work? Right? How does this work into the larger vision of NBC News?
NA: How many digital journalists do we have? I have two executive editors one for lifestyle, one for harder news. The harder news one refers to our text journalism as “print,” which I sort of find lovely. On the “print” side, we have something in the ballpark of 35-40 reporters and editors; that’s hard news. Then on the video side, it’s closer to 25-30, which is hard news and lifestyle. There is a whole other Today newsroom which is lifestyle journalism which is I think more like 20. [In total, these add up to about the 100 journalists in the NBC Digital operation.]
Then, there’s the studio which we haven’t created yet. We’re going to start with about six but the goal is to something hire closer to 12-15 by the end of the coming year.
KD: That’s an attractive vision. Is it an overall NBC philosophy that we should know about?
NA: No. I’m absolutely speaking for the digital piece first and foremost. But my boss is Andy Lack who also runs the television side of the operation and his vision coming back here was to bring NBC News and MSNBC closer together and empower digital and bring digital and television operations closer together. I don’t really want to speak for television at all.
KD: If you look at the text companies, or print companies, they’re trying to move these whole companies, right? After 20 years, they’ve almost all come to a singular vision that it’s all one journalism, digital and print output combined. You’ve got a big legacy company with a good reputation, one that is trying to find it’s own way forward. I see that your goal is here is pretty clear, but you don’t have the whole organization doing that. It seems like what you’re doing with your digital news staff is both purposing what they’re producing and packaging it in a different way and producing some of your own stuff to meet that vision. Is that right?
NA: Yeah. I think the purposing part is something that we’re trying to evolve. If TV is operating on their track and digital is operating in our track, there’s a middle ground or an overlap or a track that we both occupy, which is how do we create stuff that works for all audiences and all platforms.
There’s a recognition that there is still an audience that still likes to watch the Today show in the morning and Nightly at night and Meet the Press on Sundays. We absolutely have to serve those audiences and not just serve them but serve them incredibly There’s also a recognition that that’s really good content and we have to find a way to take some of that magic and put it on other platforms and other screens, where a different generation and a different set of audiences can consume it. Some of that is about the values behind it. Make sure you continue to do the kind of journalism, across all platforms, and you will achieve the same thing. It’s not going to happen overnight, certainly.
KD: And you do have those concentric circles that you were working, right?
NA: Right, in the broader organization, there are a number of people that sit inside the MSNBC Prime shows as well as in Nightly News and Meet the Press and Dateline who do focus on converting some of what they’re doing in television into content that would work on our digital platforms …. The people who are focused on creating television first and foremost are going to be absolutely instrumental in thinking about how we drive viewing on OTT because it is much closer to a traditional television platform than a desktop website or a mobile site is.
You think about what it takes, right now, it’ll get easier, but what it takes right now to consume a piece of OTT content on your TV. You’ve got a remote in your left hand, a remote in your right hand, you turn on the TV, you change the source, you fire up your Roku or your Fire TV or your Apple TV whatever it is, you find a provider, NBC News, you find something you want to watch, so now you’ve been there for 45 minutes before you even actually turn anything on, you’re committed at this point.
KD: So that big living-room screen is newly important.
NA: I care tremendously about getting video right on the small screen in the pocket and the big screen on the wall. Those are the two areas of growth.
KD: We all know it’s not kind of one step to get to anything. It’s like three or four. With Roku, I can’t call up a specific segment or I can’t say, “Show me Today, today. This morning’s today.” You know what I mean?
NA: Not yet. But that’s right around the corner.
KD: As long as that gets into the database….
NA: Right around the corner. Yes. Thinking about how to program for that environment when there’s voice search, when there are people who are going to actually form habits, from a platform standpoint if you’re Roku or you’re Apple or you’re Amazon, what do you show them on the opening screen? Is it what they like to watch most? Is it time of day?
KD: Or whoever’s paying for shelf space. It’s Yahoo 1997. Remember Overture?
NA: Exactly. I mean that’s a joke but it’s not that far off.
Loyalty: The Third Pillar
KD: What’s the third pillar?
NA: We call it loyalty.
KD: Loyalty. Habit. Engagement.
NA: I am a big, big fan of loyalty as a strategy. This is partly driven by my days at the Times. When I was there [2004-2010], we did the analysis that got us to the paywall. One of the biggest drivers of it was there was this core group of people, and back then page-use was the metric everyone cared about. This core group of people was 11%, 12% of the audience.
KD: Yeah. 8-12%. Everywhere.
NA: This is old data so I can say whatever I want.
KD: No, it’s 8-12% almost everywhere.
NA: Right. I think there was 10 or 11 percent but they turned something like 91% of the page views. If you can get engaged scale or loyal scale, pick your euphemism, whatever it is, then you’re starting to build a real business. On average, the way we define loyalty, it’s a formula, don’t worry about it, but the way we define loyalty, it’s somewhere in the ball-park of about 5-7, maybe, in a great month, 8% of our audience.
That group of people turns something between a quarter and a third, or sorry, consumes somewhere between a quarter and third of our video and turns somewhere between 40 and 50 percent of our page views. We can grow from that …. Here the number was lower for variety of reasons that go back to the Microsoft deal and all that. We’ve got to get it up to industry parity — but imagine if we did.
KD: Are you going to try to sum up this strategy in three or four words in terms of your branding of NBC Digital?
NA: For you today or for the audience down the road?
KD: Down the road. I mean that’d be fine, but I assume you don’t have it today.
NA: That’s an interesting question …. What people get habituated to tends to be talent. I love Lester [Holt]. I love Rachel [Maddow]. I love Matt [Lauer] and Savannah [Guthrie]. That’s where the loyalty is on the TV side. That’s some of what we have to bring onto the digital side.
KD: Video dominance, transformative, and loyalty. Those are the three pillars of the strategy.
NA: It is started.
KD: It’s started. You’ve got the coalition of the eager.
NA: We had the town hall meeting and my directive to them at the end was, “Yes I know everybody wants the stone tablets every single day, and you want to know everything that’s happening and you want your boss to give you very specific direction. But take initiative, don’t wait for permission, ask yourself the questions, “Is this driving the strategy? Am I helping with video dominance? Am I telling a transformative story? Am I driving loyalty?” If you can’t answer the question yes to at least one of those, do something else.”
Those are the marching orders. That is the cultural shift that we’re trying to put forth. This is no longer “create as much content as you possibly can, go for clicks above all else, try and just be big, big, big, big big,” this is about doing it right.