Washington -- Here's the equation; don't forget it: Take any venture, mix gently. Toss Microsoft into the mix, sit back and wait for all hell to break loose... Well, wait no more: It was (added to the mix) and it (hell) has broken loose.
Actually, it was a journalists-only Internet mailing list that damn near came apart at the seams this weekend. Why? Seems the big "M" is readying plans to launch its own news service, a venture that, in its own right, might make journalists just a bit edgy.
The previously undisclosed online venture, tentatively called "Microsoft News Service," will apparently spoon feed the Microsoft Service Network, according to story first published by Interactive Week on their World Wide Web electronic magazine [URL -- http://www.interactive-week.com].
Microsoft, Monday, found itself in the uneviable position of having to play catch up after being blind sided by new hire, mid-level employee. The employee, John Callan, inadvertently leaked the existence of the Microsoft News Service to the New Information Technologies list on Saturday.
The list itself erupted into a hailstorm of charges and counter-charges as established members of the list fired questions at Callan, who was applying for membership to the list through moderator Joe Abernathy, senior news editor for PC World.
Callan described himself as a "journalist" working for the "MSN news service." That revelation drew a swift series of questions from the list participants; Callan was left twisting in the Ether, trying to defend his new employer and his appearance on the list, a postion which Abernathy granted.
Seeking to quell speculation that he might be some kind of Microsoft Mole, sent to smoke out disgruntled technology journalists, Callan wrote a personal message to an Interactive Week reporter, copying his remarks to the open list, as well.
"I'm not on an explicit mission from Microsoft to infiltrate this news group, for goodness sake," Callan wrote. "It does so happen I work for Microsoft and I do plan to work hard to make the news services on Microsoft an industry leader and a great service to its users."
And still the journalists grumbled... Callan refused to answer basic questions about the service, how it would be structured and whether or not the new group would be creating content (read: Writing original news stories) or merely repackaging the news, a la CompuServe, Prodigy and America Online.
Bill Miller, director of marketing for Microsoft's online services group, acknowledged the existence previously undisclosed service told Interactive Week. However, Miller denied the company would be creating original news stories.
"It seems we've created some real confusion out there," Miller told Interactive Week. "What we're creating is not unlike what's on other online services" only better, he said.
What makes it better? "We're buying news feeds and news sources and repurposing them online," Miller told the bi-weekly trade newsmagazine.
Miller, however, didn't explain what the hell "repurposing" was supposed to mean.
The news bureau will be set up outside Seattle, Miller said. It will have a "small staff" of editors who, Miller told Interactive Week, "will be adding a human element" to the news.
When asked by Interactive Week what that "human element" might actually be, Miller punted: "Making decisions such as giving one story a bigger headline and another one a smaller headline." No, I'm not joking, that's what he said. Real heart warming, isn't it?
Does any of this make you wonder how a Microsoft owned-and-operated "news" service might handle a story headlined something like, "U.S. District Court Hammers Microsoft For Anti-trust Violations"?
Well, Microsoft is ahead of you; Miller says such dicey questions were hashed out by top level executives. The company, Miller told Interactive Week, has realized it will "bite the bullet" when confronted with the natural corporate tendency to censor unflattering news.
As proof of the company's supposedly unflinching support for traditional journalistic practices, Miller said the company had even "joked" about creating a "Microsoft sucks" column. (And yet, he just said that the company wouldn't be creating content... he didn't explain that one.)
Without a solid allegiance to rigorous journalistic practices, Microsoft will get crucified in the press and public. "We realized that if you try to control the content, you'll have an even bigger problem," Miller told Interactive Week.
Though Microsoft now acknowledges the development of a news service, it was just last October that Chairman Bill Gates stood before an editors' conference and proclaimed that he wouldn't be hiring reporters or editors to work as part of the Microsoft network, according to Ralph Frattura, an executive editor for features and electronic media for the Sacramento Bee, who attended the conference and took part in the racuous on-line debate that raged over the weekend on the NIT list.
What had been a trickle of debate and message traffic on the NIT list, turned into a torrent with every message Microsoft reporter Callan posted.
At one point Callan was asked: "Have you ever been asked to forward messages you see here to Microsoft executives? Do you have plans to do so now or in the future?
To this query, Callan replied: "As for forwarding messages up the corporate ladder, I think it's always good practice to treat public news groups as just that: public."
Hello?! The NIT list journalists lit up the Ether with glowing phosphor streaming from their keyboards. The NIT list, the consensus view held, was indeed a "private" list, despite the fact that messages were posted in the open.
To become a member of NIT falls somewhere on the difficulty scale between decyphering the Cap'n Crunch Secret Decoder ring and learning the Kaptan Kangaroo friendship handshake. Okay... it's a little tougher than the handshake, I lied.
But the list's privacy and "safety" factor is jealously guarded by its members. Most joined to trade candid and frank comments about the beats they covered (almost exclusively technology oriented) and various companies they were chasing down for this story or that. To suddenly have infused this journalistic safe harbor with what at first appeared to be nothing more than a Microsoft shill was, well, unsettling to say the least.
And not all members of the list were vocal dissenters. The cooler heads among them (no typo, you read that correctly) lobbied for giving Callan a chance to prove himself (or give him enough rope to hang himself, as the case may be).
As of Monday, Callan hadn't responded to several pointed questions posed by members of the list; he disappeared as quick as he appeared. Messages left in voice mail weren't returned... and the list is waiting...