At First NAA Session, Execs Look to the Web

By: (AP) Newspapers can transform one of their main financial threats -- the Internet -- into a lucrative opportunity by pursuing sometimes risky online experiments and partnerships, a group of industry executives said Sunday at the Newspaper Association of America conference here.

The Internet worries newspaper publishers because more readers are turning away from print media and connecting to the Web. The trend is driving more advertising to the Internet, threatening the newspaper industry's robust profit margins.

"We have to be willing to take a lot of swings with the bat and realize we are only going to make contact a certain amount of the time," said Hilary Schneider, a Knight Ridder Inc. senior vice president who oversees the newspaper company's online operations.

Executives from the San Francisco Chronicle, The Bakersfield Californian, and the Billings (Mont.) Gazette also joined a panel that kicked off the annual NAA convention, which will continue in San Francisco through Tuesday.

Adapting to the challenges of the Internet will require newspapers to protect their existing franchises even as they pour more money into Web sites and other Internet ventures, said Ian Murdock, the San Francisco Chronicle's business manager.

Publishers who successfully navigate the transition will be pleased with the payoff, Schneider predicted. The Internet is "hugely profitable," she said. "The revenue that comes online goes disproportionately to the bottom line."

Bakersfield Californian Publisher Ginger Moorhouse concurred. "Our margins online are better than our newspaper's. It's not encumbered by a lot of things that are baked into daily paper."

San Jose, Calif.-based Knight Ridder has engineered one of the industry's most aggressive Internet expansions, often working in partnership with two other large publishers, Gannett Co., and the Tribune Co.

The three newspaper companies created the online job advertising service and recently combined to buy a controlling stake in, a Web site that indexes thousands of local news stories.

Many newspapers see such sites as threats, but executives from, Google Inc., and the Yahoo subsidiary Overture Services Inc., who appeared on another panel, urged them to expand their newspapers' reach through online partnerships.

Last year, Knight Ridder's online holdings produced an operating profit of $36 million, more than doubling from $15 million in 2003.

Although they've been growing rapidly, Internet operations still represent a sliver of Knight Ridder's sales, which are mostly generated by its newspapers in 28 U.S. markets. The company's online sales rose 39% last year to $114 million -- about 4% of KR's total revenue.

Online ads last year accounted for 2 to 5%of most newspapers' revenue, said Rob Runett, director of electronic media communications for the Newspaper Association of America. The newspaper industry collected $1.5 billion from online advertising last year, a 27% increase from last year, outpacing the industry's overall ad growth of 3.9%, Runett said.

Executives in Sunday's forum said they can envision online ads accounting for 15 to 20% of their revenue within the next five years.

Tom Curley, the chief executive of The Associated Press, is expected to discuss the Internet's challenges and opportunities in a speech Monday at the news service's annual meeting in San Francisco.


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