A couple of months ago, Bill Gates uttered a remark that sent journalistic pundits into a tizzy. At a Q&A session during the annual Newspaper Association of America conference, Gates denied that he was hiring reporters to staff his Sidewalk series of online city guides.
The Microsoft chieftain was savaged in articles about the exchange. "DID BILL GATES LIE IN CHICAGO?" screamed a headline atop a story in the normally staid Editor & Publisher.
Such hyperventilated accusations plainly missed the point. First, these interpretations assume that Gates understands the definition of a reporter as journalists traditionally have known it. Second, they are based on the belief that Sidewalk will threaten to undermine the fundamental mission of newspapers, to disseminate news.
Wrong on both counts.
To Gates, the semantics of journalism--particularly "second-wave" journalism--are immaterial. In Microsoft's view, Sidewalk truly isn't hiring reporters in the traditional sense. For the most part, it's hiring entertainment critics and "aggregators," a bloodless Web-inspired term for people who cull information that's already available online and organize links to it.
The fact that journalists jumped all over Gates for not speaking their language, God forbid, provides a telling indication of why newspapers fundamentally misunderstand the Internet.
Years of success had lulled newspapers into believing that their way of doing things was the only way. So it is understandable that they would assume that Gates and the rest of the online industry would adapt to their way of thinking and their vernacular, rather than the other way around.
This egocentrism is also evident in their assessment of their electronic competition. For some reason, newspapers persist in thinking that online media companies want to produce newspaper-like information and put it on Web sites. As a result, most papers are doing just that, thinking this is the best way to compete for readers online. Big mistake.
A look at how newspapers have evolved in recent decades may help explain why they're taking this path.
Their decline can be traced as far back as the end of World War II, when families began leaving cities for the suburbs. The metropolitan papers didn't follow them, thinking that big-city news would always be readers' first priority, no matter where they chose to live.