NET.WORKING: How do you want your industry news?

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As more and more companies build intranets linking all their employees, they're increasingly wrestling with the question of what kind of news and marketing information -- if any -- to pump to everyone's desktop.

Obviously, this is an area of concern to trade publishers, historically the primary providers of industry news to business readers. In theory -- and I stress the word "theory" because I don't agree with much of this -- intranets threaten to transform this century-old relationship in ways not yet clearly understood.

There are legitimate fears here. Some companies, such as giant computer network manager Electronic Data Systems, are moving ahead with plans to defray the costs of building corporate intranets by selling advertising that would move directly from the business marketer to potential buyers' desktops, and which could easily include direct purchasing capability.

Other companies are weighing whether to transmit electronic summaries of industry news through their intranets on a daily or weekly basis, conceivably cannibalizing traditional trade magazine news. Earlier this year, in fact, BellSouth briefly mulled a plan that might have replaced trade books altogether with electronic versions of each magazine's news content for intranet distribution.

Asked about the status of the plan this month, the company just shrugged (figuratively speaking) and said it saw no sense in canceling anyone's trade magazine subscription. In fact, BellSouth officials said they hoped the online news summaries they did want to provide would encourage employees to buy and read more trade newspapers.

That's a smart attitude, and it's why I don't really worry about the long-term threat to trade publishers from intranets.

The plain fact is, trade books are a highly evolved technology of their own and not easily replaced. Yes, I speak as an interested party, but so is everyone reading this column right now. Consider how you use your own industry newspapers, and you can see the reasons BellSouth never seriously considered pursuing their earlier plan:

  • It would eat up productive company time. People don't necessarily read trade books at work: They read them on trains, in the bathroom, at McDonald's, in planes. Put that news on the company intranet and everyone has to sit at their desks to read it. That takes up work time, when it used to take up personal time.

  • It would put employees at a competitive disadvantage. Some of the most important information carried by trade books comes from the ads. An electronic newsletter doesn't tell engineers and marketers how the competition is positioning and repositioning its products. Over time, an intranet-fed staff will end up knowing less about its market.

  • It would really, really bug many executives if they were suddenly be deprived of their weekly and monthly business magazine subscriptions. The trades are every industry's community newspaper and the best are irreplaceable.

  • The lesson of all this isn't that trade publishers don't have to worry about Internet competition, because they do. But it does mean publishers should never let up on marketing the value of their own print product, a highly portable blend of news, ads, photos and charts, easily navigated backward or forward by fingertip -- as simple and perfect a medium as you could hope to devise.

    David Klein is associate publisher-editor of the Ad Age Group. He reads a dozen trade books a week, none of them online. He can be reached at [email protected].

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