Newspaper execs debate Microsoft's free news offer

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How can news brands compete on the Web, where they risk cannibalizing their print product, while a company like Microsoft Corp. has nothing to cannibalize? That was the question on the minds of panelists at Tuesday's Newspaper Association of America conference in New York.

"If there's any cannibalization to do, it's better to do it to yourself," said Jack Fuller, president-CEO of the Chicago Tribune, "rather than have the competition do it." He added that "a significant number of our customers in our electronic forums are not subscribers."

Steve Weiswasser, president-CEO of Americast, explained that newspapers, and all news brands on the Web, create a competitive edge based on the added-value content they bring to their service rather than a layer of mainstream or headline news. "You can give away basic news because it's ubiquitous ... Microsoft is not--I don't think--giving away Michael Kinsley," a reference to the upcoming online magazine from the political commentator that will likely be free to MSN members but not to others.

"Microsoft is a rock ensemble, and we're a symphony," said Al Sikes, president of Hearst New Media. He said that a symphony can break down the musical combinations and groups it can play, including "rock music," and that "this industry is going to whip their tail."

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