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A Web Venture for MSNBC's Carlos Watson

Another personality who first made a name in traditional media is putting the final touches on an ambitious online destination. Carlos Watson, an MSNBC anchor who also hosts a weekend show on talk radio network Air America, and a small band of staffers are readying The Stimulist, a news and opinion site slated to go live on May 12.

Watson bills The Stimulist as being aimed at what he terms "the change generation;" that is, an audience of young professionals between the ages of 25 and 49. Watson is still on the shy side of 40 and counts himself as a card-carrying member of this cohort, and freely uses the words "we" and "us" to describe his intended audience. "People in their 20s, 30s, and 40s—educated but edgy," he says. "I don't think of us as the same as the yuppies of 20 years ago. We are more down to earth, more digitally savvy, and more diverse." And more global: The Stimulist aims to draw 30% of its traffic from outside of the U.S., which would be significantly more than even a site like gets.

Obviously, the Web is a very crowded place, and many who have succeeded in more traditional precincts of media have encountered less success online. The ultimate success of The Stimulist may hinge less on its precise editorial positioning than on whether Watson can supercharge his career and to what degree his personal brand takes root in the market. There is chatter regarding his roles being expanded at both Air America and MSNBC. (Disclosure: I am a paid contributor to MSNBC sibling CNBC.)

Just Six Daily Features

A venture like The Stimulist, which melds aspects of Web aggregation and its own distinct editorial voice and features, brings comparisons to Arianna Huffington's The Huffington Post and The Daily Beast, which was started by former New Yorker and Vanity Fair editor Tina Brown with the backing of Barry Diller's IAC/InterActive (IACI). But The Stimulist will be an unusual Web venture in that it will be built entirely around six daily features—a move sharply at odds with the gazillions of bloggers and aggregated stories that churn endless fresh content for The Huffington Post each day.

The Stimulist's features are: The List (a news roundup from national and international sources); Kind of a Big Deal (rising stars in various spheres); Resolved (a statement and notion intended to inspire conversation; one on a beta site last week was Resolved: Your Kids Will Never Get Married); Good Sh*t (a daily recommendation service); Flashback (a bit of historical context to deepen understanding of current figures, such as, Watson suggests, comparing Britain's only Jewish Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, to President Barack Obama); and The C Note, which will be Watson's own daily online column of sorts. Watson consistently paints his site's primary difference as being about what will happen next, as typified by its Kind of a Big Deal, not what just happened.

This focus runs counter to the strategy of virtually all other Web sites that seek to draw in millions of users. The conventional wisdom is that continuous updates spur traffic growth. But Watson, who will serve as the site's CEO, said that The Stimulist intends to drive traffic, and repeat visits, by enticing readers to comment on the stories of the day, and then come back to monitor the conversations mushrooming off such stories.

Building on a Personal Brand

Watson, who worked for McKinsey & Co. and started and sold an educational company before beginning a media career, is the sole bankroller behind The Stimulist, though he expects to lure outside investors eventually. The site's managing editor is Max Linsky, a former editor in the Creative Loafing chain of alternative-weekly newspapers. Its chief operating officer and chief revenue officer is Taiye Tuakli-Wosornu, who has worked closely with Watson on his TV shows.

"It is a very interesting brand in the sense that it is actively manned by someone who is developing a very strong personal brand, and the fact that [Watson] has multiplatform accessibility to consumers," says Ian Schafer, the CEO of ad agency Deep Focus, which has bought ads on The Stimulist for cable channel AMC's series Breaking Bad.

"That can create a pretty strong mechanism for marketing the site successfully." Projections from an internal Stimulist presentation say the site will top 2 million unique users within two years of its launch, about as long as The Huffington Post took to reach that mark. Of course, a traffic-grabber like Huffington Post is not exactly minted every day, or even every year, and it is by no means assured that a site not relentlessly chasing more users can ring up such numbers.

Inspired by History

"At the heart of my brand is pragmatic optimism," Watson says. "I am a lover of history. I know crazy things happen. I know a short guy who's not from a prominent family can become Napoleon. I know elephants can go over the Alps. I know someone you didn't know about six years ago is now the 44th Commander-in-Chief."

Compared to all that, Watson figures, success in a new Web venture is a cakewalk.

Fine is BusinessWeek's MediaCentric columnist and Fine On Media blogger

Fine is BusinessWeek's MediaCentric columnist and Fine On Media blogger.

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