Sidewalk's Side p.9

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By: Mark Fitzgerald WHEN BILL Gates tried to soothe publishers at this spring's Newspaper Association of America convention, Knight-Ridder new media chief Bob Ingle gave voice to a widespread industry skepticism about Microsoft's competitive intentions.
Over Gates' constant denials, Ingle asserted Microsoft was hiring local newspaper reporters and critics to staff its rapidly proliferating Sidewalk online city guide sites.
So is Sidewalk targeting newspaper journalists?
Like a lot of things in new media, the answer seems to be: It depends.
Sidewalk said it does not target other media ? it simply looks for people from all walks of life who want to pioneer a radically new media.
Sidewalk insisted that it built its New York City site without hiring a single newspaper editorial employee.
But at least some newspapers beg to differ.
"Absolutely they are targeting newspapers ? absolutely. We recently lost two people to Microsoft," said Linda Sease, the Rocky Mountain News' vice president of marketing/sales and the paper's online contact.
The two were veterans of the Denver paper who fit the profile of the kind of local journalists many newspaper industry figures say Sidewalk is targeting: One was an associate business editor who for several years served as entertainment editor and the other was the longtime food and wine critic.
"Listen, we do not want to hold anyone back in any way, shape or form," Sease added. "But for Bill Gates to stand up there [in Chicago] and say they are not [recruiting newspaper journalists] is ridiculous. We've got two examples here . . . . The issue is, do not go up and say you're not going to do something and then do it ? just be up front about it."
The Chicago Tribune also feels caught in the cross hairs of Sidewalk recruiters.
"By my count they've made three sweeps through the building this year," said Owen Youngman, the Tribune's director of interactive media.
So far, Microsoft has come up empty ? and the reason, Youngman says, can be traced to traditional newspaper values.
"A lot of our core people are journalists and so they're not so susceptible to that siren song," he said.
From the earliest days of audiotex, the Tribune has been exactly the kind of early adopter newspaper that new media companies naturally target for recruitment.
Just last month, the Tribune beat Sidewalk into the Windy City market by introducing its own city guide, Metromix, in its Digital City Chicago site.
Not surprisingly, then, the Tribune is a favorite stop for new media recruiters. And while it's been fortunate not to lose people to Microsoft, it has lost some to other media companies.
"We've lost editorial people, ad people, tech people. It's a very competitive area and we're doing a lot of high-profile things for newspapers," Youngman said.
Youngman said the Tribune's new media unit has lost people to Knight-Ridder New Media and Nando.net, the new media venture for the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C.
Ironically then, in the struggle for Tribune new media staffers at least, the score is Bob Ingle 2, Bill Gates 0.
And Microsoft insisted it is not keeping score.
Sidewalk general manager Frank Schott said his four full-time recruiters are not specifically targeting newspapers or any other medium.
For one thing, he said, "We're not flying to build another newspaper.
"We think newspapers are great at publishing news and we have always said we are not going to do news ? the politics, the crime or even the sports," Schott said.
And the plain fact is no one yet knows what kinds of people online city guides or new media in general will require, he argued.
"I think the parallels with early television are very telling," Schott said. "It was largely a guess . . . . In the early days of TV, they recruited people from vaudeville, from radio and from print. In the end, they found this new medium had similarities with all those other media, but it really took advantage of the talents of pioneers. It's anybody's guess now what kind of skills we need now."
Sidewalk, he said, is "looking for pioneers."
It also appears that just as newspapers are recruiting from each other, Microsoft is trolling in the online world.
"I would say 70% of [New York Sidewalk's] staff comes from . . . Silicon Alley," said Celia Irvine, general manager of Microsoft's New York service.
Irvine herself came to Sidewalk from Hearst New Media, where she was vice president and general manager. New York Sidewalk's editorial staff
is headed by Eric Etheridge, onetime executive editor of the alternative weekly the New York Observer.
But, she said, no one else on the New York editorial staff comes from newspapers ? and it was neither on purpose or because anyone got away, she added in a telephone interview.
"It's probably just [a matter of] the people who walked in the door," Irvine said. "It's probably true that we had a proclivity to look at people who were in online before."
At other sites, general manager Schott said, there are different mixes of backgrounds: film, entertainment, fine arts, telecommunications and print.
"As recruiters go into different cities, there is no template, no cookie-cutter," he said.
But then, what about the job postings on Sidewalk's recruitment Web site, Sidewalk.careers (www.microsoft.com/sidewalk/joblist.htm)?
As a recent E&P Interactive article pointed out, the ad headings and job descriptions sometimes look very similar to newspaper recruitment ads.
Sidewalk said it is seeking a "Copy Chief," "Editorial," and freelance writing, editing and photography.
Sidewalk's Schott insisted, however, that those are really the exceptions, and that for the most part, Sidewalk editorial ? "and I want to put quotation marks around 'editorial,' " he sald at the beginning of an interview ? staff are chosen not for skill sets but for their desire to work in a new and interactive medium.
And as for sweeping through the Tribune Tower in Chicago, Schott said he simply is not aware of any recruiting effort there, and suggested that could be recruiters seeking information about other candidates.
"A lot of times we're saying, 'Do you know anybody?' " he said.
Newspapers are clearly as wary of Sidewalk recruiting as they are of the ultimate aims of the service itself. Several newspaper human resources and online editors simply ignored E&P's repeated calls to discuss Microsoft recruitment.
At the same time, however, as newspapers build their own city guides, there is a palpable confidence in the future.
"There's nothing even close to panic here," said Seth Effron, Nando.net's executive editor. "We don't see any great movement away from us."
Microsoft has made no apparent recruiting attempts at either Nando.net or at the Raleigh
newspaper's more locally oriented online service. Neither has either service been bothered by CitySearch, which has a site operating for the North Carolina Research Triangle.
"It hasn't affected me at all to my knowledge," News & Observer new media editor Bruce Siceloff said. "They could be doing it secretly . . . flying off to Seattle to be wined and dined. But if so, I'm
oblivious to it."
"It's something you're always concerned about," Nando.net's Effron said. "But the impact of Sidewalk or CitySearch has really been zero on a newsroom of 20 people. We're up to 14 million accesses a week and we continue to grow and expand both in terms of revenue and readership."
Some online newspaper experts believe the intense competition for online journalists will ease as more young journalists enter the marketplace already armed with computer skills.
Chicago Tribune's Youngman, for example, argued that, and noted that right now it's easier to "teach somebody about the Internet than it is to teach the values of the newspaper."
Sidewalk general manager Schott, however, said he isn't so sure that will be the case.
"As more mainstream media come into [new media], it gets to be a supply-and-damand issue," Schott said.
With demand rising as fast or faster than the supply of skilled interactive people, he said, "It's going to be quite tight for a long while."

?(Sidewalk insisted that it built its New York City site without hiring a single newspaper editorial employee. "I would say 70% of [New York Sidewalk's] staff comes from . . . Silicon Alley," said Celia Irvine, general manager of Microsoft's New York service.) [Caption]

?(E&P Web Site: http://www.mediainfo.com)
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher June 14, 1997)

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