Tomorrow On Line p. 34

By: Mark Fitzgerald

Its leap from in-house to global system completed,
Knight-Ridder’s PressLink eyes new delivery environments sp.

IN THE BEGINNING, PressLink was an in-house system to distribute text and graphics among Knight-Ridder Inc. newspapers.
Then it became an independent on-line news and graphics service selling to all comers.
Now PressLink regards itself as an “electronic marketplace” where newspapers and other information consumers go not just to buy ? but to sell as well.
At this week’s Nexpo conference in Las Vegas, PressLink will be giving the first hints of yet another direction ? this time into a still somewhat undefined environment in which information providers and consumers do not have to abandon their primary tasks just to make transactions.
“Our goal is to make it really an on-line service, a marketplace for mapping content,” new PressLink president Richard Cates said in an interview.
“IPs [information providers] will put their information instantly on line, making it available for sale in the commercial marketplace. Information consumers can navigate in a straight-forward fashion, conduct the transaction, completely on line . . . a digital on-line fulfillment,” he said.
It will be a “normal” way to work, Cates says, as opposed to the interruptions even digitally transmitted data now require.
“What people are forced to do is break from their normal duties, move over to another system to do something else, [rather than] what they normally do, which is to edit, or process photos or assemble film clips,” Cates said.
“The current generation of systems don’t provide that,” he added.

Integrated tools

What PressLink is working toward, Cates says, is a set of tools that would make the on-line delivery system appear to be in the system environment used by editors of text, graphics, photos or film or multimedia.
In describing this system of the future, Cates avoids the term user-friendly in favor of “pleasurable” or “normal.” And “normal,” he says, is not how IPs must work today.
“Contrast that to what you do today. You log into this foreign, to you, system, get what you need and log out,” Cates said.
Nowadays, Cates suggests, that kind of a process is a bothersome on-line speed bump at a time when the roles of information providers and consumers are rapidly becoming interchangeable.
“Consumers more and more are becoming producers, taking information and molding it” into a form attractive to the marketplace, Cates said.
To complete the process, IPs and consumers need better integrated tools allowing them to view and acquire information without leaving their work environments, he said.
For the moment, however, PressLink will be introducing at Nexpo a series of short-term steps to advance this grander on-line notion.
“We will be showing new versions of software with improved access speeds, taking the current system and improving it,” he said.
These new versions, Cates said, will be a step towards greater integration and a “higher performance network.”
“We will be showing new mechanisms for storing and managing databases,” he added.

Electronic marketplace

“Our biggest message at Nexpo,” Cates said, “will be for customers and users to start seeing further value in integrated environments.”
As sketched by Cates, this integrated future is a logical progression in PressLink’s evolution since 1985, when it was launched to service Knight-Ridder newspapers.
Four years later, Knight-Ridder radically expanded PressLink’s business mandate to serve not only newspapers outside the chain, but the growing market for on-line electronic information.
It requires radical technological changes as well, recalls former PressLink president Richard Blair, who left the service this spring.
“We looked, acted and smelled like a Knight-Ridder proprietary system,” he said.
In a relatively short time, PressLink transformed itself to serve customers who had off-the-shelf Apple Macintosh or IBM compatible personal computers.
From the start, the idea was that there would be no proprietary hardware or satellite dish required. Users are charged a fixed fee for time spent on-line and a variable charge based on the amount of information downloaded or transmitted.
Also from the start, PressLink provided a market for information providers to resell photos and graphics, with a bulletin board system. Subscribers pay only for the images they download or transmit.
PressLink’s expansion started strongly. Revenues in 1991, for example, climbed 60% above the previous year.
But the service really took off a little more than two years ago.
“When Reuters and AFP [Agence France-Presse] came on within months of each other, that gave us quite a bit of credibility,” former president Blair recalled.
More than 30 news services and information providers are now on line, including United Press International; Gannett Newspapers; Knight-Ridder/
Tribune; Los Angeles Times Syndicate; and New York Times News Service.
PressLink has also signed on some big photo shops, such as the Bettmann Archive; the White House Photo Office; EMPICS Sports Photo Service; and International Color Stock Inc.
Individual newspapers are also becoming active on the service, selling their products. One recent example was Mexico’s El Norte, the Monterrey daily that is normally a big consumer of PressLink photos. When the Chiapas rebellion began on New Year’s Day, El Norte found a substantial market for its photos of the fighting.
PressLink also has expanded onto the information superhighway, offering access to the variety of on-line databases in Knight-Ridder’s Dialog through Advanced Research Technologies’ Artist Gateway. The custom gateway permits PressLink subscribers access to Dialog without needing to know the net’s file numbers, commands or field tags.

Newspapers are first

This expansion into networking ? and other forays into servicing advertising agencies, corporate business marketing and Windows users ? does not mean newspapers will be slighted in the future, Cates said.
“I believe newspapers are the customer right now,” he said. “They won’t become less important.”
For one thing, Cates said, there is no real contradiction between the newspaper user and the network user.
“Much of the success of PressLink is owed to the fact that newspaper publishers were early adopters of digital publishing technology,” he said.
PressLink has 198 of the top 200 largest circulation newspapers and “pretty good penetration” of smaller and medium-sized papers, Cates said.
And the service’s thrust will be to make PressLink even easier to use.
“Our goal . . . is getting to the customer as fast as possible,” Cates said. “To move in a very, very efficient, cost-effective and ? I’ll use the word ‘pleasant’ ? pleasant a way as possible.”

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