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CBS’ ‘cable bypass’ surgeon weaves a news Web

Morgan's video news strategy pays off

A correction was made to this article on Dec. 1, 2006.

CBS News has a legendary past, but until recently its position in the digital future seemed cloudy at best.

While CBS has news written into its DNA, it has no cable play and very little profile on the Web, making it difficult to compete with CNN and MSNBC in an increasingly 24-hour news universe.

Enter Betsy Morgan, senior VP of digital media and general manager of CBSNews.com, the exec at the center of the network’s strategy to leapfrog traditional cable networks — dubbed CBS News’ “cable bypass” strategy.

Since implementing “cable bypass” in 2005, CBSNews.com has been the fastest-growing news Web site, with an audience that jumped 45% in one year. It is still well behind behemoths CNN.com and MSNBC.com, which achieved their dominance as print-focused sites in the mid-’90s, but she believes the future belongs to video news on the Web, the kind CBS News is famous for.

Among the early calls that have started to bear fruit were making video free and ad-supported at a time when the competition was charging for access to video. Soon after, CBS became the first to simulcast its evening news program for the Web.

“CBS historically built an organization on a broadcast, ad-supported model,” Morgan says. “That’s where the strength is in the organization.”

Morgan became the youngest business exec dedicated to the news division in 1999 when former CEO Mel Karmazin sent her over to West 57th to work with then-news president Andrew Heyward. “I was a total outsider,” she says. “I didn’t grow up as a producer; I was a business person so I came to the table with different ideas.”

After the site was relaunched, her first challenge was to get distribution for brands like “60 Minutes,” which meant developing content relationships with Yahoo!, Google, AOL and Comcast. Recently, the net started uploading content to YouTube, such as “The Early Show” interview with Sacha Baron Cohen, where “Borat” wrestles anchor Harry Smith to the ground.

Now CBS has a new digital czar in Quincy Smith, a former Allen & Co. banker brought in by CBS topper Leslie Moonves to find the next YouTube in its infancy. As a former banker, Morgan welcomes the new approach.

“You’re not doing things to make a quick buck,” she says. “It’s about looking for a piece of technology or a stake in a company and what that could mean for CBS News.”

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