October’s homepage mailbag

Posted by Ian
 
Where do you draw the line between hard fact and hearsay? "Gossip. Gossip. Gossip," complained one correspondent this month. "Thanks Microsoft for providing me with NOTHING worth reading." "It would be better," countered a second user, "if you could remove some of your content which is mainly bad news. I am more than capable of getting depressed all by myself should I choose to do so. What would be good is a filter which would only let through good news."
 
Striking a balance – of tone, of relevance, and above all of opinion – is at the heart of what we here at MSN Towers endeavour to maintain on the homepage. And now, thanks to our relaunch, with a greater range of sources from which to select our news stories, that balance is something we hope we’re better able to deliver than ever before. One person’s reportage will always be another person’s tittle-tattle; that’s the virtue of living in a democracy, where the right to dislike and disagree with something goes hand in hand with the right for someone to say something you disagree with. What we at MSN can do is at least try to present you, our users, with enough information to make your own mind up about things and to judge them bad news or gossip acordingly.
 
It’s a delicate area, mind, and it would be disingenuous to deny that MSN does not have an agenda of sorts. We’re a national website for starters, though at times this isn’t always as self-evident as it should be. "While I love browsing your site," wrote one user, "I find myself frequently annoyed at the lack of inclusion of other parts of the UK. Every time I follow a link to see what is the ‘up and coming place to buy property in the UK’‚ or ‘how much is your UK property worth’ or ‘top 10 breaks in UK’ or ‘the most haunted place in Britian’ or a hundred other links, hardly any cover or include Scotland or Ireland or Wales. Now I’m not a Scottish die-hard or patriotic but the UK is made up of more than England! Maybe you should try harder to include the other vastly overlooked nations; or else change your site’s name to England’s MSN!"
 
A second correspondent wished to know why, "like so many other web providers in the UK, do you think that only news from England should get top page headlines, such as tonight’s football [England’s 2-0 defeat by Croatia]? There were three other UK-based international teams playing tonight, one of which actually won – Wales! May I suggest you change the name of your website to MSE: Microsoft England."
 
We hold our hands up and concede there have been instances where we haven’t been thinking with enough of a national mindset. This is something we’re addressing right across the site, and hopefully you’ll see a renewed emphasis on the nations and regions in the weeks to come, especially when we run ‘the UK’s best…’ style features. England’s defeat by Croatia was, however, the biggest sports story of that particular evening in terms of sheer shock value, and hence won a lead on the homepage.
 
Indeed, breaking news is another important element of the site’s agenda. But this too is a sensitive subject. "PLEASE‚ PLEASE do not publish sport results on the front page!" requested one user. "Rather than spoil my TV viewing later in the day, can you give me the option of finding out a result or ignoring it until I have seen the game/race in question. I refer‚ in this case‚ to the headline ‘Schumacher win ties championship". Could you not just have a headline which said ‘Chinese Grand Prix result’? That way my afternoon on the sofa watching the race unfold is not spoilt." Another correspondent was equally upset. "I was shocked this morning to see the winner of the Chinese Grand Prix on my home page. I was looking forward to watching the re-run at lunchtime. I guess many people were too. I can’t imagine many people getting up at 6am on a Sunday to watch it live, not when there is a full length re-run later at a more respectable time. In the future I would appreciate it if you would not announce the results so soon."
 
Fair point. We don’t practice enough consistency in this regard. You’ll note, for instance, that when the next interest rate decision is announced, we’ll probably run a headline on the homepage which will say just that: ‘Interest rate decision announced’, linking through to a story with all the information. If England had somehow gone on to win this year’s football World Cup, however, should we have covered that story with a headline that simply said ‘World Cup final result’? This would have been singularly coy, looked rather amateurish, and would have flown in the face of what an online portal exists to do. Perhaps, where sporting events are concerned, our choice of wording needs to take better account of the time of day and, as was the case with the Chinese Grand Prix, whether or not it refers to an event most people will be actively looking to enjoy at a later date.
 
Elsewhere we got into trouble over another sporting issue. "Your England flag is incorrect," wrote one user on the weekend of some more Euro 2008 qualifiers. "You are showing the flag of the Corporation of London." "How about using the right flags for your Euro 2008 graphic?" noted another. "The Cross of St George with a sword in the top left quadrant is the flag of London‚ not England!" "It would appear that you have mistakenly included the wrong national flag for England on your Euro 2008 banner," added a third. "The flag you are showing is the ‘City of London’ flag!"
 
And there I was, trying to convince you the homepage had a UK mindset and wasn’t London-centric… Apologies to all.
 
Another visual error of sorts cropped up in our image promoting a feature discussing Friday 13th. "Your homepage shows unlucky symbols, such as a black cat," observed a correspondent, "but it also shows a four-leafed clover: a good luck symbol, and not quite the thing for a supposedly unlucky day!" While the actual article was more about superstitions than bad luck (hence the reference to a four-leafed clover), granted the intention was not quite as clear as it should have been.
 
A slip-up of a more elementary kind appears to have crept into one of the features we promoted during October. "Please do not use that awful American word ‘gotten’ anywhere on MSN in the UK," raged one reader. "It’s not in the English language and sounds/looks horrible!" Agreed on both counts; we’ll try not to let this happen again. It’s the sort of thing we’re happy to curb with enthusiasm.
 
"I have tried to get on with the new layout," confessed another correspondent, "but to be honest it is awful and a retrograde step. I have even changed my homepage to that of another organisation. It would be good to get a reply to feedback so we know you have read them even if you don’t agree with the comments."
 
Well, we do read all your pieces of feedback and, as this regular round-up hopefully shows, try to respond to them as and where we can. And while we naturally don’t agree with everything you say, we will always defend your right to say it.
 
So what better note to end on than this striking challenge from one reader: "Your site is OK but often its pages are filled with tabloid junk and devoid of the big issues which concern the world‚ such as the environment, global warming and serious political issues. You are not courageous‚ you are not leaders‚ and you are frightened of taking a stand. For all your monetary power‚ you prefer to lie low‚ and in doing so betray the future."
 
I would hope that some of the issues we’ve been tackling of late, from the real price of your cup of coffee to the cost of saving the world, not to say workers’ rights, North Korea, laser eye surgery and whether we need an autumn bank holiday, went some way in addressing such concerns. But we can, and should, always do more. Please let us know what you’d like to see on your MSN.
 
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