Microsoft Fattens Its Journalist Ranks

By: Steve Outing

Bill Gates is perceived correctly by many newspaper publishers as a potential competitor. His Microsoft Corp. now employs an estimated 200 or more journalists, many of them lured recently from newspaper, magazine and broadcast jobs. Journalists are appearing in sufficient numbers that they are helping to transform the software giant into a media company in its own right — and bringing some of journalism’s culture and ethics to Microsoft.

Recently, a Society for Displaced Journalists, Microsoft Chapter was formed by Kathleen Flinn, a producer for Seattle CityScape (the first of Microsoft’s online city entertainment guides) and former newspaper and magazine editor. She had about 30 people show up at her last meeting, and she’s getting a lot of interest from her e-mail announcements sent throughout the company. Flinn is assembling a database of Microsoft journalists with profiles so that they can stay in touch.

Journalists are showing up in several Microsoft divisions. For instance, the CityScape team includes a number of ex-print journalists. Managing editor Dan Fisher is from the Los Angeles Times, where he was editor of TimesLink (the paper’s online venture when it was on the Prodigy network) and editor of the Sunday international news section. Tom Sietsema, a former food and restaurant writer for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, San Francisco Chronicle and Washington Post, will be writing restaurant reviews for CityScape. Jan Even, the top editor at CityScape Seattle, is former features editor of the Seattle Times. And Eric Etheridge, editor of CityScape New York, is from the 7 Days events newspaper in New York.

The Microsoft Network, MSNBC, Encarta (the electronic encyclopedia division) and the Mungo Park Web site have all added significant numbers of new staffers from traditional newsrooms. Microsoft Network has hired a mix of print and broadcast journalists, and MSNBC has brought on board some television and wire service journalists.

Flinn says that journalists joining Microsoft have a transition to make, and most find it challenging to “learn the language” spoken by the programmers/developers that make up most of Microsoft’s workforce. In staff meetings, journalists “don’t always know what (programmers) are talking about,” but after a while Microsoft talk sinks in. “We even start using their jargon,” Flinn says. There’s also more exposure by Microsoft journalists to the marketing side of projects, where that’s hidden from most print journalists’ view.

Mike Gordon, creative editor for CityScape and a former newspaper editor and online manager for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, says “it was a pretty major transition” when joining Microsoft. The staff at Microsoft “speak a different language” that at first proved baffling, Gordon says. But he adapted in time, determining that it is a mix of business school and technical jargon.

Gordon and his ex-newspaper colleagues are having their own influence on the Microsoft organization. He notes with pleasure the time a programmer made a comment in a meeting about the importance of the “nut graf” in a piece of content, a piece of “journalese” that he learned from Gordon.

“Microsoft people approach projects with a degree of rigor that I wasn’t used to seeing in the newspaper business,” Gordon says. They plan everything in considerable detail, “and they’re smart as hell.” He says that’s not meant as a criticism of some bright and talented newspaper people he’s worked with, but “some of these (Microsoft) people are scary smart.”

A difference between the Microsoft environment and that of some large newspapers, both Gordon and Flinn say, is the lack of “dead wood” in the work force. Says Flinn, Microsoft is moving too quickly for the company to afford employees who aren’t giving their all.

Gordon says he’s working about the same hours and intensity as when he was a newspaper manager, but the work is different, and “more intellectually challenging than I found at newspapers. … You have to move pretty quickly to keep up. I’m an old dog who’s having to learn new tricks.”

Flinn points out that working as a journalist at Microsoft does not make one an “ex-journalist.” “‘How could you leave journalism?’ people ask me,” she says. “I say, ‘I haven’t.'” There is a perception with many traditional-media reporters that writing for the online medium (not just for Microsoft) makes their work less legitimate, Flinn says. That’s at attitude that her fledgling group hopes to dispel. “That’s why the word ‘Displaced’ is in our name, not ‘Former.'”

(In Friday’s column, I’ll talk to a long-time newspaper editor who’s joined America Online’s Digital City venture about his transition to new media.)

Reuters takes a strange new-media turn

The news this week includes reports that Reuters Holdings PLC of London is disbanding its Reuters NewMedia unit in New York and spreading its operations out to other Reuters units. Reuters NewMedia has been an Internet skunkworks, headed by president Buford Smith and executive vice president Andrew Nibley. Smith abruptly resigned in September, apparently in protest of Reuters’ strategic direction for its Internet division.

In my view, this is an odd move. Media companies that treat the Internet as merely adjuncts to traditional media units are making a mistake, and are giving competitors unbound by traditional ways of doing business an advantage. The Internet, still a medium in its infancy, will require new ways of thinking by companies that expect to succeed online. Companies that merely tack on a new media department to existing media units may not be able to demonstrate the commitment to learning how to do business in an environment that is increasingly competitive — and filled with smart players like Microsoft that are totally committed to an Internet strategy.

A report in Inside Media quoted a Reuters NewMedia employee as saying, “They (Reuters Holdings management) wanted to take things in a more traditional direction.” That will be a hindrance in the Internet marketplace, with no central figure or central organization driving a total Internet strategy. Reuters has made a bad move.

AOL browser problems with WSJ resolved

The problem I reported about America Online users having trouble accessing the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition Web site has been resolved. Users of the AOL Web browser were not able to get past the password screen because AOL’s browser was reporting to the Netscape Publishing System (which is used by the Journal site) that it supported “cookies,” when in fact it does not. Chris Tucher, Netscape’s director of publishing/media markets, reports that a patch to the Publishing System has been created to identify AOL browser requests and treat them as coming from a non-cookie supporting browser.

Contact: Chris Tucher, ctucher@netscape.com

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company.

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