The Hearst New Media Center, a high-tech lab, opened its doors last month with three primary purposes: to showcase advanced media technologies; train Hearst employees on new-media products and services; and develop interactive applications based on the company's print and TV properties.
Time Inc. opened a similar new-media "suite" in its headquarters building last year that's used mostly to make presentations to advertisers interested in parent Time Warner's Full Service Network.
But for closely held Hearst, a company known for being cautious and conservative, the new-media lab represents an aggressive step forward. Hearst in the last year has gone from a skeptical observer of the new-media marketplace to an active participant.
"We really came from a wariness and a general feeling of concern to a very positive attitude about these developments," said Frank Bennack Jr., Hearst president-CEO.
Mr. Bennack believes print publishers have to look at new media as both a threat and an opportunity. The threat, he said, is that if publishers don't translate their properties into new forms, someone else will-under a different brand name.
"We think we can strengthen our existing businesses and protect our franchises from the encroachment that will come if we don't take advantage of the new delivery systems," Mr. Bennack said.
The Hearst center is key to the company's plan to expose all of its 14,000 staffers to new media.
Representatives from the magazine, newspaper, book publishing, broadcast and cable TV divisions will participate in two-day training seminars that will include creating CD-ROMs or other electronic products from scratch.
"We want to give as many as have an appetite at the Hearst properties a chance to learn the new media and work with the new media, rather than setting up a new-media group and putting Chinese walls around that group," said Al Sikes, president of the Hearst New Media & Technology Division.
To make sure top Hearst staffers know just how important new media is to the company, the No. 2 executive from each operating group is giving up day-to-day responsibilities to serve a four-month stint as deputy to Mr. Sikes. George Irish, VP-group executive, Hearst Newspapers, has already done his duty; Hearst Magazines Exec VP-General Manager Mark Miller's turn is coming up soon.
"That's a way to be sure the support is solid in every area," said Mr. Bennack. "We want to say to all 14,000 people at Hearst that we intend to participate in these new delivery systems. It's also a statement to advertisers and everyone with whom we do business."
After the first phase of employee seminars, Hearst is likely to open its lab to customers, including advertisers and agencies, for training and product development.
The Hearst center-really a series of five "studios"-showcases a broad range of multimedia products and services, many of them in areas in which Hearst is not yet involved.
To get to the studios, visitors first pass through an entrance gallery with a multimedia wall that uses back-lit photos, video displays and 3-D images to track the company's evolution from newspaper publisher to diversified media company. A computer screen and electronic pen serve as the center's sign-in sheet.
One room features videogame players from Sega of America, Nintendo of America and others, and interactive TV prototypes, including a demonstration of the UBI system Hearst will test in 34,000 homes in the Quebec area next year in partnership with five Canadian companies.
The "information services" studio displays various information delivery platforms, including a fax-on-demand service that retrieves news and classified ads and a handheld pager that displays daily news updates from Reuters.
A third room contains three multimedia computers that can be used to display and create CD-ROMs and other products. Computers in a fourth room are tied in to the Internet and all the major commercial online services, including Prodigy and America Online.
The fifth studio is actually a videoconference center linked to Hearst's back-office operations in Charlotte, N.C. Hearst executives logged some 2,000 flights between Charlotte and New York last year and are replacing much of that travel with videoconferences.
In addition to UBI, Hearst holds a minority stake in software company Books That Work and is developing HomeNet, a series of online and CD-ROM home design and decorating products.