MCI's online venture slow going

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News Corp. and MCI Communications Corp. are laboring into their second trimester as parents-to-be of a new World Wide Web-based online service.

The partners apparently decided on a name for their "baby" some months ago, but have since changed their minds, said an employee of the venture.

The new team, led by MCI's Scott Kurnit as president of the new venture, and News Corp.'s Anthea Disney as its editor in chief, has experienced a lot of shakeout since its inception last August.

The latest fallout is Alan Baratz, former chief executive of News Corp.'s Delphi Online Service who became president of News Corp.'s News Technology Ventures when MCI came in, and recently left the company.

"There are remnants from four groups here: old Delphi people, News Corp. people, MCI people and people hired by the venture itself," said Gene DeRose, president of new media consultancy Jupiter Communications, New York. "They've been thrown together in a blender, so there are conflicts and kinks to work out."

The service last September hired about 10 journalists including Jonathan Miller from the Sunday Times in London, Lew Silverman of the "MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour" and former network newswoman Linda Ellerbee. Mr. Miller was hired to head a production team dedicated to delivering round-the-clock news to run on its World Wide Web-based service. Although all those employees are still in place, the original plan has been shelved for a less costly one that focuses on developing original programming in many areas, including news, sports and features.

The newsroom staff has been creating original features that run on both Delphi's and MCI's Web sites--which alone demonstrates the hesitancy these two entities have in letting go of their online independence.

"Each of the companies is extremely aggressive and competitive," said Angela Dunlap, MCI's president of marketing. "Those common culture points have been important to the companies' success individually and in the joint venture."

The confusion is extending to the ad sales effort as well. News Corp./MCI recently tapped Alyce Alston, former West Coast ad sales manager for TV Guide, as director of advertising. But executives say it's still unclear who will handle the actual sales duties.

"How do you sell 30 different products?" asked Ms. Alston. "...I've created about 10 different areas that incorporate all the content we have to sell--like women, sports, entertainment--that advertisers can buy to reach a certain market."

Still, executives insist the service will launch next quarter. The venture is now calling for beta testers on the Web to try its new service, which will include Internet access, e-mail, chat and original programming.

The service will include content from MCI, including marketplaceMCI (an online mall); content from News Corp., including its Web sites for the Fox Network, HarperCollins Publishers, and fX; and original content created by the joint venture staff.

MCI and News Corp. will share responsibilities to market the service. MCI agency Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer/Euro RSCG, New York, is already working on a campaign.

Copyright November 1995 Crain Communications Inc.

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