Lessons From Hershey: Old Rivalries Die Hard

By: Steve Outing

Here are a few more summaries of sessions at the New Media World component of the America East newspaper operations and technologies conference held earlier this week in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Conference presenters offered some excellent insights into the newspaper new media business, which you should find worthwhile.

Old rivalries in new media

Fred Mann, director of Philadelphia Online, the World Wide Web service of the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Daily News (both Knight-Ridder properties), said the online venture was the first serious cooperative effort by both papers -- and it hasn't always been easy. When a sensational local murder/rape case came up, print editors -- mindful of "beating the competition" -- didn't want to give Philadelphia Online any information on the case in advance of publishing their stories in print. They feared that the other paper, even though each has the same corporate parent, might "scoop" the other based on information they might give to the online operation. Philadelphia Online ended up running Associated Press updates on the story, instead.

The Philadelphia situation is unusual, in that the Inquirer and Daily News have very different personalities. ("Sometimes it's hard to see the family resemblence," said Mann.) The Inquirer is the serious broadsheet, while the Daily News is the irreverant, feisty "newspaper with an attitude." The tone of the Daily News, in fact, seems well-suited for the free-wheeling Internet, he said, though the Inquirer, as the more recognized brand name, is the bigger draw.

Mann noted that the recent John DuPont story (DuPont is a millionaire who allegedly killed a man on DuPont's mansion grounds) generated a huge increase in traffic to Philadelphia Online -- including many hits from around the world, since people expected to find the best coverage of the story from the newspapers to whom the event was local. Displaced Philadelphians also are using the service in large numbers to follow the Eagles pro football team.

Merchandising opportunities

Greg Gendron, Internet services director of The Tribune-Review in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, talked about his successful Pittsburgh Steelers Web site. The site includes news, discussion and statistics on the pro football team, and offers visitors a chance to buy Steelers merchandise. (Goods can't be purchased directly online, but an online form can be printed out and faxed to place an order.) During weeks that the site is busiest -- such as during the Super Bowl -- Gendron has seen a marked corresponding increase in merchandise sales. "This is one of the biggest successes we'd had" online, he said. As with Philadelphia's experience, the Steelers site has attracted an international audience of the team's faithful scattered around the globe. The Tribune-Review also operates a Web service that it calls Tributaries.

Like many speakers at this conference, Gendron emphasized the importance of forming alliances and partnerships for your new media projects. The Tribune-Review is working closely with Carnegie-Melon University, which is one of the country's top computer schools, and MountainNet, a software producer, to create a database publishing platform. And the paper recently entered into an alliance with nearby Duquesne University, the first school to offer bachelor's and master's degrees in online journalism (as reported in this column recently).

The Internet doctor makes housecalls

Frank Daniels III, president of NandO.net, the new media arm of McClatchy Newspapers, talked about the importance of assisting new online users and getting them up to speed. NandO set up a service called the NandO Doctor, which sends a trained computer technician out to customers' houses to get them hooked up to the Internet. The service pays for itself, but more importantly, NandO is seen as a company that helps people adapt to future technology, Daniels said. This is a great service in that it can create a long-term customer out of a novice who might otherwise become so frustrated trying to connect to the Internet themselves that they give up before getting started.

Daniels said he is concerned that 1996 could be a year that some publishers back off their new media investments. With newsprint price increases easing and publishers feeling less pressure on their core profits, he fears that commitments to new media ventures -- which are not yet making much money -- will fade. Now is the not the time to be complacent, nor to back off, he suggested.

"Internet profits" is an oxymoron

Peter Levitan, president of New Jersey Online, acknowledged that publishers have not yet profited on the Internet, but said the money is coming. That AT&T and the regional Bell operating companies (RBOCs) now believe in the Internet is great news for publishers hoping to profit online. With such great audience interest in the Internet, the now-immature online advertising market will evolve quickly, he said.

No more print price increases

Newspaper Association of America chairman Uzal Martz (of the Pottsville Republican) noted that the core print business of newspapers cannot afford to increase its rates in the current environment. But new media operations can make up for that lack of future growth, Martz suggested, so think long term by investing in new technologies.

Of concern to publishers should be online "category killers" being created by companies outside the newspaper industry. (For example, stand-alone Web sports and entertainment services produced by non-media companies.) Online newspaper services and newspaper industry online alliances -- such as New Century Network, Careerpath and Infinet -- can be seen as defensive moves designed to ward off these online competitors who are encroaching on newspapers' traditional information turf.

Martz quoted race car champion Mario Andretti in advising publishers about driving on the "infobahn": "If you're fully in control of the race car, you're not going fast enough." With the pace of technological development going at race car speeds, it's vital for publishers to stay alert, Martz said.

Ask a silly question, get a silly answer

On the online-news Internet discussion list that I manage, a frequent contributor, Vin Crosbie, responded to an oddball query posted by another list member. Where, the latter wanted to know, could he find "celebrity email addresses"? Well, that question was a bit off-topic for the online-news list, which deals with online publishing and the transition of traditional media to digital form. So Crosbie composed a funny and witty reply about an imaginary teenager named Jason who can be found on a certain street corner in Hollywood selling a list of "email addresses of the stars."

Crosbie's missive was a parody, and easily recognizable by most people. Alas, not everyone got the joke. Crosbie got called by 2 reporters -- both from papers among the top 10 in the U.S. -- who wanted to track down "Jason" for a story.

The lesson of this little episode is that communication online can easily be misconstrued. Subtle satire in an email note often goes unappreciated unless the author includes a "hint" that it's not to be taken seriously. Different conventions have evolved to express emotions online. The smiley or emoticon -- for example, ;) or :( or :) -- is the most common on the Internet; CompuServe users tend to use or . Some think this approach to communication is too informal, or just plain silly. But a simple ;) to signify that you're pulling someone's leg can prevent incidents like that above.

If you still don't see the need for this approach, just think back to the spoof news story last year about Microsoft "buying" the Catholic Church. The Microsoft switchboard was overwhelmed with angry people who took it a little too seriously.

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