It’s the kind of mashup only the crazy Internet boomers of the ’90s could cook up: Why don’t Microsoft — or MSN rather — and NBC get married? Now that Keith Olbermann is off to college, the romance just isn’t there anymore.

Comcast owns NBC now, and it wants more flexibility with its increasingly vital Web property. Microsoft, meanwhile, says it would prefer to have an open relationship with other news gatherers. So the cable giant cut a check, reportedly along the lines of $300 million, and the two are going their separate ways. Comcast will keep the site, which has already been renamed After a decent interval, will relaunch as a portal exclusive to the TV channel, which looks like it will retain the mouthful of a name.

I took a tour of CNN’s Internet division back in 1996, the same year AOL 3.0 came out for Windows 95. CNN knew way back then, when blinking fonts were the cutting edge of HTML, that the Internet was the future of news, and so did two of its competitors. A few days before my tour, Microsoft and NBC had just launched their joint-venture — a cable news channel and website that had CNN in its cross hairs.

On TV it’s mostly a wash and Microsoft dumped its stake in that end of the business years ago. On the Web, according to comScore by way of The New York Times, CNN still leads the upstart with 56 million unique monthly visitors to MSNBC’s 50. Of course, both operations would be blindsided by blogs, Twitter and other disruptive technologies, but that kind of traffic isn’t anything to dismiss.

I’m glad Microsoft and NBC are finally parting ways. It was a loveless marriage arranged out of greed and maybe even a little anxiety. To the degree it was successful, sites like The Huffington Post and Reddit now make it look so much easier, while old fogeys such as The New York Times and The Washington Post do it with more class. Still, you have to hand credit to the corporate pioneers of online news, which staked their reputations and resources on the thing when a lot of their peers still thought fax machines were revolutionary.

The unforeseen development of the cable channel into a Democrat-friendly alternative to Fox News is the surprisingly stable product of this dysfunctional family, but has only added to the confusion for people who type MSNBC into their browser. Leave it up to Google to figure out whether they want headlines or Rachel Maddow clips.

There’s a lot of concern out there about the quality of news, and a great deal of fear over the survival of professional information gatherers. So whatever the product, I take it as a good sign that Comcast just spent $300 million to buy a news site and Microsoft plans to use some of that money “to go out and build a world-class news team.”

Rest in peace, MSNBC. May your offspring prosper.

— Posted by Peter Z. Scheer

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