2-1/2-year-old PAFET Works Quietly for Newspaper New Media

By: Steve Outing

While much attention has been focused on New Century Network as the shining example of newspaper industry cooperation in cyberspace, an organization called PAFET (Partners Affiliated for Exploring Technology) has been quietly serving a similar role for its member newspapers. The group was first announced back in March 1994, yet few people outside its member companies hear about its activities.

PAFET is a new media technology research and development group for six medium-sized U.S. newspaper chains -- A.H. Belo Corp., Central Newspapers, Cowles Media, Freedom Communications, McClatchy Newspapers and Pulitzer Publishing. Among the largest newspapers represented in this group are the Anchorage Daily News, Arizona Daily Star, Arizona Republic-Phoenix Gazette, Dallas Morning News, Indianapolis Star, (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, Orange County Register, (Raleigh) News & Observer, Sacramento Bee and St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Executive director Marla McDonald says that often at trade shows she encounters people in the industry who want to know what the organization is doing and question why the group is so quiet. But PAFET exists to aid its members in developing and implementing new interactive technology in order to extend or protect those newspapers' franchises, she says. It's up to the individual papers to decide how open they want to be about specific projects that PAFET may have helped them develop.

McDonald and an assistant, stationed in Dallas, Texas, are the sole staff members of PAFET. More than 100 people from the member companies have been directly involved in PAFET's research and development work, however. (Says McDonald, who travels frequently, "This is truly a virtual company.") There's also a management committee of CEOs that meets quarterly; an operating committee of newspaper new media top managers that meets monthly; and an investment council made up of member companies' CFOs.

Evolution of mission

The group started out as an information-sharing body, trying to make sense of the fast-moving interactive publishing marketplace and identify key technologies that could help member newspapers compete in the information age. Many publishers had the same questions, so PAFET went out and answered them in order to educate their members about new media opportunities and challenges.

The next phase involved joint development of new media projects, which are managed under the central PAFET umbrella for use by various member newspapers. But this is not a cookie-cutter approach, McDonald says; while one company make take a PAFET-developed project and package and market it as an extension of existing products, another may take the new project and run with it as a separate entity, using the technology in an entirely different way. Development is the responsibility of PAFET; marketing and execution is the job of individual newspapers.

Most recently, PAFET has taken to making strategic minority investments in promising new media companies that offer products or services that look to benefit the newspaper industry. It already has bought into Pointcast and Infoseek; half a dozen other potential investments are on the table today, with announcements due within the next couple months.

"Our whole focus is on mapping technology and markets," McDonald says. "We're not developing technology for technology's sake," but rather identifying and developing new interactive technologies that either protect or extend the core product. While that's primarily newspapers, the six member companies also own other media, so PAFET's charter includes exploration of such technologies as interactive television, as well as the Internet.

Newspapers in Education

The group has two or three primary focus areas currently, though McDonald is hesitant to provide specifics. A project she is willing to talk about publicly is a just-introduced Newspapers In Education (NIE) election package that's provided to teachers to develop classroom curricula. In addition to printed materials, PAFET has developed an online component which lets teachers develop an election curriculum using the World Wide Web as a resource. Links within the online product use PAFET member newspapers' Web sites as a student resource, as well as point to other election and political sites.

There's also an interactive educational game for middle and high school levels that has students searching for information to solve a "crime" by combing online information in various U.S. cities (not coincidentally, cities where PAFET members have newspapers). Also part of the election package is a mock election program, available either on the Internet or on diskette (for those schools not yet online).

McDonald says the NIE online materials have been very popular already. More than 200 teachers in Raleigh, North Carolina, have requested the materials. They are also being introduced in Colorado Springs, Colorado; Dallas, Texas; Indianapolis, Indiana; Phoenix, Arizona; Orange County, California; Sacramento, California; and St. Louis, Missouri.

PAFET also is involved in that other newspaper cyberspace joint venture, NCN (see item below). PAFET has a voting seat on the NCN board, held by Minneapolis Star Tribune publisher Joel Kramer, even though it was not one of the nine founding NCN companies. PAFET company managers also take part in NCN subcommittees. Because PAFET represents the medium sized newspapers that are being targeted as being NCN members, it's been afforded a place at the NCN table.

Contact: Marla McDonald, memcdonald@aol.com

New Century Network: Work in progress

Fairly often I receive notes asking about the status of New Century Network, the U.S. newspaper Web venture of nine of the largest U.S. newspaper chains announced in May 1995. NCN is anxiously awaited by many in the newspaper new media industry, but we'll have to wait a bit longer to see how the final NCN business model turns out. Formal launch is still scheduled for early 1997.

I checked in with CEO (and former HBO cable TV executive) Lee deBoer last week for an update. He says, "We've got our heads down," and are in the process or "getting to know our affiliate (newspapers) better and learning more about what they want and what they're doing (online)." deBoer is deep in the process of hiring his key lieutenants and expects to have two or three announcements this week or next. By the fourth quarter, NCN should have 20 or 30 staff members staked out in some new Manhattan office space. He says that they'll be working with the prototype more actively in the next couple weeks. And a prototype affiliates meeting should be formulated by September.

To concerns that NCN is moving too slowly, deBoer says he "wants to get it right. ... If we had built (NCN) to the specs of January 1996, or May 1995 (when NCN was first announced)," it wouldn't have been the right model.

Contact: Lee deBoer, ldb@newcentury.net

Digital City watch

America Online spin-off Digital City Inc. has announced dates for formal launches of the online community guide projects in several more cities. Digital City Philadelphia and Los Angeles will go live officially in mid-September; Atlanta opens this Thursday; and San Francisco formally launched last week. Digital City Boston and Washington, D.C., are already in place. The Digital City central area on America Online contains "placeholders" for many more cities, but there is little content for those communities at this time. The services are initially only on AOL, but Web versions of the city services will arrive soon.

Digital City continues to attract newspaper people to its local staffs. In Philadelphia, one of the staff members is the former Philadelphia Online advertising director. Philadelphia Online is the World Wide Web service of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News.

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