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Microsoft exits

The last of the new/old media team-ups ends

Microsoft has sold its stake in news website, marking an end to the heady period of integration between new and old media giants epitomised by the 10-year-long merger of AOL and Time Warner, which began in January 2000 and ended in December 2009.

Microsoft joined with NBC, the veteran American broadcaster, to create the 24-hour news channel MSNBC back in 1996, and the two companies built the joint venture into something which could compete with CNN and Fox News on its own terms. Often with a pronounced liberal viewpoint, the channel was known for its strong focus on political news, and became closely identified with its outspoken anchor Keith Olbermann. In 2005, however, Microsoft disinvested itself of the news channel. The company had been struggling with its relationship to TV news for years, with CEO Steve Ballmer saying in 2001 that, "if we were starting it now, as good an operation as it is, I don't think we would have started it".

The channel's website stayed a joint venture, however. was an easier fit for Microsoft, but still led to problems for both companies. NBC was frustrated by the internal competition between its own, fully controlled, and its 50 per cent share in, as well as being hurt by the inability to sell adverts on MSNBC as a package with internet and television components. Microsoft, meanwhile, did not appreciate being forced to have its main news portal rely exclusively on one provider, as Bob Visse, general manager for MSN, told the Associated Press:

Being limited to content was problematic to us because we couldn't have the multiple news sources and the multiple perspectives that our users were telling us that they wanted.

As Tim Carmody argues at the Verge, the most interesting outcome of the news is that Microsoft will reportedly be starting original online reporting this autumn:

MSN will be building a brand-new news team of approximately 100 journalists, or roughly the same size as the original group of reporters behind at its launch in 1996.

MSN's pairing of an online portal with original news puts them in competition with similar sites like AOL and Yahoo. But for stories and placement on MSN's home page, the new news outfit will now also be competing with its old partner

As new media and old media both converge to being simply "media", it seems that old allies are becoming new competitors. But the outcome of that competition remains very much up in the air.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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The strange death of boozy Britain: why are young people drinking less?

Ditching alcohol for work.

Whenever horrific tales of the drunken escapades of the youth are reported, one photo reliably gets wheeled out: "bench girl", a young woman lying passed out on a public bench above bottles of booze in Bristol. The image is in urgent need of updating: it is now a decade old. Britain has spent that time moving away from booze.

Individual alcohol consumption in Britain has declined sharply. In 2013, the average person over 15 consumed 9.4 litres of alcohol, 19 per cent less than 2004. As with drugs, the decline in use among the young is particularly notable: the proportion of young adults who are teetotal increased by 40 per cent between 2005 and 2013. But decreased drinking is not only apparent among the young fogeys: 80 per cent of adults are making some effort to drink less, according to a new study by consumer trends agency Future Foundation. No wonder that half of all nightclubs have closed in the last decade. Pubs are also closing down: there are 13 per cent fewer pubs in the UK than in 2002. 

People are too busy vying to get ahead at work to indulge in drinking. A combination of the recession, globalisation and technology has combined to make the work of work more competitive than ever: bad news for alcohol companies. “The cost-benefit analysis for people of going out and getting hammered starts to go out of favour,” says Will Seymour of Future Foundation.

Vincent Dignan is the founder of Magnific, a company that helps tech start-ups. He identifies ditching regular boozing as a turning point in his career. “I noticed a trend of other entrepreneurs drinking three, four or five times a week at different events, while their companies went nowhere,” he says. “I realised I couldn't be just another British guy getting pissed and being mildly hungover while trying to scale a website to a million visitors a month. I feel I have a very slight edge on everyone else. While they're sleeping in, I'm working.” Dignan now only drinks occasionally; he went three months without having a drop of alcohol earlier in the year.

But the decline in booze consumption isn’t only about people becoming more work-driven. There have never been more alternate ways to be entertained than resorting to the bottle. The rise of digital TV, BBC iPlayer and Netflix means most people means that most people have almost limitless about what to watch.

Some social lives have also partly migrated online. In many ways this is an unfortunate development, but one upshot has been to reduce alcohol intake. “You don’t need to drink to hang out online,” says Dr James Nicholls, the author of The Politics of Alcohol who now works for Alcohol Concern. 

The sheer cost of boozing also puts people off. Although minimum pricing on booze has not been introduced, a series of taxes have made alcohol more expensive, while a ban on below-cost selling was introduced last year. Across the 28 countries of the EU, only Ireland has higher alcohol and tobacco prices than the UK today; in 1998 prices in the UK were only the fourth most expensive in the EU.

Immigration has also contributed to weaning Britain off booze. The decrease in alcohol consumption “is linked partly to demographic trends: the fall is largest in areas with greater ethnic diversity,” Nicholls says. A third of adults in London, where 37 per cent of the population is foreign born, do not drink alcohol at all, easily the highest of any region in Britain.

The alcohol industry is nothing if not resilient. “By lobbying for lower duty rates, ramping up their marketing and developing new products the big producers are doing their best to make sure the last ten years turn out to be a blip rather than a long term change in culture,” Nicholls says.

But whatever alcohol companies do to fight back against the declining popularity of booze, deep changes in British culture have made booze less attractive. Forget the horrific tales of drunken escapades from Magaluf to the Bullingdon Club. The real story is of the strange death of boozy Britain. 

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.