By the time you read this, the election will be over and MSN's Decision '97 site will be winding down - MSN journalists beginning to warm up other plans for online news and entertainment that make up MSN's UK offering. But at the time of writing, Decision '97 was in full swing; pitching into the fray against about five other UK election sites. It will remain online until 11 May.
Two things you should know about Decision '97. First, its open access, meaning you don't have to be an MSN subscriber to use it. Second, unlike many of its competitors, it has no print or broadcast equivalent. This latter fact is no small matter to the team at MSN. "We're the first real online news team," says MSN News Editor Geoff Sutton. "People on national newspapers find it hard to understand, but in the future they'll all be doing it like this."
Perhaps the clearest example of this pioneering approach is the team's Political Editor, Nick Assinder, who worked for the Daily Mail and the Daily Express, and is now the first ever online journalist to work with a laptop, digital camera and mobile phone link to file stories. He's also the owner of a "lobby pass", which gives him press access to the House of Commons.
So much for the background; what about the site? Broadly speaking, the site is a bit like looking at a newspaper online in that nearly all the content is made up of stories and photographs relating to the political debate. Stories range from the very current to analysis and commentary. The main interactive element to the site is occasional "live" chats with leading figures. From a design point of view, the site is attractive but graphics intensive, which is fine if you have a leased line connection, but not too good on slower modems.
EVERY PICTURE TELLS A STORY
The home page has a whopping 30 GIF files and is around 172K download. Modem users will be lucky to see the whole page in less than 45 seconds. The structure of the site is fairly simple, with about six topic areas under which most of the copy is found. It must be said that although there is a price to pay for downloading so many pictures, it's well worth it if you have a good connection - they're well chosen and very well cropped.
MSN Webmaster Stephen Butler is considering offering a search facility and improving navigation because some users have found it confusing when trying to return to earlier pages. He's also looking into the idea of a site map to make the overall structure clearer.
Fortunately, the site has been designed with all browsers in mind so there's no real disadvantage if you are not using Microsoft Explorer - unless you decide to take part in the online chat, in which case you need to download MS Chat Control, Microsoft's standard chat object. But with plans for more use of ActiveX, this may not be the case as the service develops.
HAVE I GOT NEWS FOR YOU?
There's a growing battle to do timely news online in the UK, so where does MSN stand against others? The site looks good, but when it comes to instant news and volume it falls a little behind existing services. On the day I looked, there was more news on The Times/Sunday Times site which offers rolling news and the full stories from the paper (albeit five hours after print).
The MSN site doesn't give much feeling of breaking news apart from in the "stop press" section, which is updated hourly but only has nine or so stories at any one time. Stories are archived for around a week, but not date marked which is somewhat irritating. It's also unfortunate that stories are only uploaded twice daily - 11.30am and 5.30pm. This means that a good story breaking in the morning may not appear for five hours - hardly taking advantage of the immediacy of the Net.
Despite such drawbacks, Decision '97 is a good site. It looks like MSN is learning fast - learning how to attract readers and run a hectic online news service. Few competitors are investing this much resource, meaning the future offerings from this team will be worth watching. A revamped news service will be launched on 12 May after Decision '97 is closed.
Launch: 24 April 97
Design: MSN UK
Target Audience: Families, Net users
Competitors: ge97.co.uk, BBC, ITV, The Guardian, The Times Online, The Electronic Telegraph
Setup: Hosted in-house on a Compaq 4500 running Internet Information Server 3.0
Size: 70Mb (about 500 stories).
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