PUBLISHERS TACKLE BRANDING, NEW MEDIA

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NEW ORLEANS-Newsprint price woes faded to the background as newspaper publishers concentrated on new media and marketing concerns at the annual Newspaper Association of America gathering last week.

The need for publishers to view their papers as brands was a theme hammered home by the opening speaker, NAA President-CEO Cathleen Black, as well the closing speaker, Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin.

Ms. Black said it was time for the industry's executives to "rethink newspapers as a brand and invest in new directions as well as fundamentals."

Even though nearly 70% of the adult population still sits down to read a Sunday paper, Ms. Black urged investment in new media as well as traditional forms.

"Any marketing text will tell you that building a brand takes three things, understanding the brand and the world around it, growing the brand by investing in fundamentals and new directions, and defending the brand from forces that would chip away its strength for outside sources," she said.

Two days later, Mr. Levin picked up the same baton. "To reiterate what Cathleen Black told you on Monday, think brands," he said. "From the consumers' standpoint, brands are a kind of shorthand that allows them to find the quality they're after without spending their lives looking for it."

But he said that information companies must constantly work to keep consumer trust. "Creating successful brands in the information business isn't rocket science," said Mr. Levin. "It's a lot harder."

Judging by the activity level at the NAA's first new media lab, many of the publishers took the advice to heart.

A constant stream of publishers flocked to the lab that housed hands-on displays from Prodigy, America Online, Delphi and AT&T's Interchange, TeleGrafix Communications. Many of the executives were heartened by the hands-on demonstrations given by papers as large as The New York Times and as small as the Pottsville Republican, a 30,000-circulation Pennsylvania daily headed by President/Publisher Uzal H. Mart Jr., the incoming NAA chairman. "We want readers to see us as their gateway to the Internet," said Mr. Martz.

But there was also some sobering news. In one of the luncheon addresses, Sears Merchandise Group Chairman-CEO Arthur Martinez informed publishers he doubted his group would be altering spending plans in any major way in the next year to support the new media ventures.

The news was considered something of a reality check since Sears does about $200 million in newspaper advertising and is a partner with IBM in ownership of Prodigy.

And as Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr., publisher of The New York Times said when asked about the ultimate profits of new media: "We have no idea. It's more than research and development, but we don't know when it will begin making money."

But still there was the unmistakable buzz that at long last, newspapers were moving full steam ahead into cyberspace. "Two years ago, publishers were just looking at this," said Ralph Terkowitz, VP-technology at the Washington Post. "Now I feel like they really get it."

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