Interview: MSN's Peter Bale

The self-regulating community

User Generated Content – or UGC – has become a key buzzword for major internet sites – who are keen to bring the community atmosphere and impact of forums and social bookmarking sites such as Digg and N4G to their own output. Bale believes that so-called 'citizen journalists' and other forms of UGC can sit well alongside traditional journalists.

"I think UGC and journalists meld extremely well," he insists. "In my experience when UGC is based around communities where people are passionate around politics and technology those groups become rapidly very self-regulating.

"In general, communities that have flourished have started to become quite respectful of each other and over time – and it takes time – you do get much better quality debate and conversation from the community itself. UK libel law does not do us any favours in that regard, but generally those mature communities are quick to self-regulate.

"From a journalist's point of view if they are open to that conversation, which they should be, it allows them to be even smarter than they were before because there will always be someone who has, say, prised the back off their iPhone and can talk back to the journalist about accelerometers and can talk back to you.

"There will always be someone smarter or more knowledgeable and this is a way that they can respond rather than just sending an angry email. I also think your shortcomings as journalists are found out quickly, if you've taken a quote from somewhere or plagiarised something.

"I think we should embrace that and say 'thanks to Joe Bloggs for pointing out that it was brought out in '95 and not '96 as stated'."

Accusations of bias

Given that it is owned by Microsoft, MSN has faced accusations of bias towards its owner, but Bale is adamant that the independent spirit of his journalists is not affected by the corporate politics.

"We argue with people at Microsoft on how, say, we cover rivals to the Xbox, and even games on the Xbox. But that is, I hope, a sign of how independent we are," he insists.

"I really hope that people don't think MSN is a biased news source. I think that they get a very straight view. Microsoft through MSN is not going to inflict its own political position or anything.

"Our journalists are completely free to recommend, to find opinions and seek out views which are honestly expressed from others. If there is a Microsoft view it is about enabling and reaching the capacity of technology and reaching out to the largest amount of people."

But surely, suggests TechRadar, is it not the case that certain stories are simply avoided because the topic is a little too close to home?

"I don't think we do choose a line (that suits Microsoft's stance), we just don't spark unnecessary debates about unnecessary topics," claims Bale.

Microsoft learning

"Microsoft is learning what it means to have a media company operating within it and politics is something that they have never had a stance on.

"If we do take a line here then I think it's a very straight one without being anodyne. We want to be explanatory and informational not declamatory and preachy – and I think that's hard to find.

"I actually think portals traditionally have relied on very straight news sources such as Reuters and Associated Press, as well as independent news sources.

"Reuters was one of the first to allow its content onto the net…and they played an important role in making the internet credible as a source of news."

Legal tourism

UK websites have ongoing difficulty with a whole host of legal issues – with a lack of case precedent meaning that big corporations are having to take a best guess at stances that will protect them.

"I think there's difficulty for sites in the UK because they are still governed by UK libel law," explains Bale.

"Some English publications are pushing boundaries on what's acceptable for publishing in the UK and I applaud them for doing it, but the trouble is that UK libel law encourages libel tourism.

"Americans don't understand that we don't have a first amendment here but on the other hand I think it is a great responsibility for journalists to report well and honestly. I also think the libel laws can be beneficial in that respect because they do force you to think twice about what you are writing."

Bringing maturity to the dialogue

Bale's current key project is to work on MSN's growth as a magazine site, with emphasis on building up the personality of its content.

"We have to make MSN much more engaged with its readers, give it more personality – more bylines, more responses to readers from journalist and more responsibility taken in the community by the journalists.

"We have an extraordinarily talented group of journalists but we try to give them the best training. We do provoke debates deliberately by being controversial and saying 'respond to this' and that's fine but I'd like to bring a bit more maturity to the dialogue."

It is that shifting and evolving dialogue that is central to Bale's ethos, as he looks to integrate tools such as Live Maps and Silverlight into the editorial experience. It will be interesting to see if he can continue to develop a relationship with his readers that can take MSN into the next era; one that may not necessarily have the crutch that being Microsoft's homepage brings.

Patrick Goss

Patrick Goss is the ex-Editor in Chief of TechRadar. Patrick was a passionate and experienced journalist, and he has been lucky enough to work on some of the finest online properties on the planet, building audiences everywhere and establishing himself at the forefront of digital content.  After a long stint as the boss at TechRadar, Patrick has now moved on to a role with Apple, where he is the Managing Editor for the App Store in the UK.