By Published on .

There's strength in numbers.

That, apparently, is the thinking behind New Century Network, a company formed last week by eight of the nation's largest newspaper companies to develop a national network of local online services.

New Century will be jointly operated by Advance Publications, Cox Newspapers, Gannett Co., Hearst Corp., Knight-Ridder, Times Mirror Co., Tribune Co. and The Washington Post Co.

Several large newspaper companies were noticeably absent from the venture announcement, including The New York Times Co. and Dow Jones & Co. The Times Co. had held discussions with the partnership but declined to participate. No talks were held with Dow Jones, whose flagship The Wall Street Journal is a national newspaper.

New Century said its network is open to all U.S. dailies.

Venture partners will share content and jointly develop new services. They will also provide technical standards and consulting services and develop national e-mail, bulletin board and chat networks.

The partner companies publish a total of 185 daily newspapers with a combined Sunday circulation of more than 23 million. Six of the companies already publish electronic editions and each partner expects to launch online editions of most of its papers within three years.

The formation of New Century is a way for the papers, which are already struggling to keep readers on the print front, to remain competitive in the electronic world.

"Online and electronic delivery is the natural extension of the newspaper's mission to provide that content-edited with context and clarity-however the customer wants it," said Donald E. Graham, chairman-CEO of Washington Post Co.

A search is under way for a New Century CEO; Peter Winter, Cox VP-market development, will hold the post in the interim.

Mr. Winter said the combined investment in New Century will be "in the tens of millions rather than the hundreds of millions" of dollars, and will be shared equally by the partners.

Though most of the online editions will be ad-supported, Mr. Winter said New Century won't have a dedicated national ad sales force at the outset.

"We think that advertising will be from the local level and then will bubble up from there, rather than the other way around," he said, adding that it will be at least three years before any of the partners begin to see profits from the venture.

Mr. Winter predicted local classified ads will be the first form of online marketing to be linked in a national network.

Analysts' reactions were muted.

"It could be very interesting, but I'd certainly take a wait-and-see attitude before I'd get very excited about it," said Lauren Fine, a media analyst at Merrill Lynch & Co. "I worry that it won't get done."

Prodigy Services Co., which has content agreements with Cox, Times Mirror, Gannett and Hearst, said last week it will support standards developed by the venture. The partner companies also publish various forums on CompuServe, America Online and the Internet's World Wide Web.

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