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N.Y. Times expands AOL content

In an attempt to broaden its electronic reach, the New York Times will expand its presence on America Online.

In an attempt to broaden its electronic reach, the New York Times today announced that it is expanding its presence on America Online (AOL).

The Times, which has been on AOL for two years, will be adding an expanded version of Science Times, a monthly crossword puzzle, a people area, message boards, a weekly Virtual Places tour, and a monthly "Times Looks Back" feature.

With the moneymaking potential of the Web still far in the future for many publications, the Times' move raises questions about which strategy works best for online newspapers and on which platforms they should present their content.

The Times' new content is a response to AOL's new partnership strategy, developed when AOL converted to unlimited pricing. Under hourly pricing, AOL was able to pay its partners a fee based on usage of their areas. But when it started charging a flat rate, the online giant decided to limit its number of partners and to entice those who stayed into offering something to AOL members that they can't get elsewhere.

While the Times, which yesterday was named best overall online news service by Editor & Publisher, decided to stay on both platforms, many companies have left AOL to focus on their Web pages.

The San Jose Mercury News, one of the first newspapers to go online, left AOL August 17, several months before AOL's shift in strategy.

Extenuating circumstances played into the Mercury's departure; AOL had cut the price it paid the Mercury for content, and had begun to compete with the Mercury through Digital Cities. But the bottom line was that it was too expensive to put the newspaper on two separate platforms, Bob Ryan, director of the Mercury Center, said today.

"The workload and demands of publishing electronically on two different platforms far outweighed the revenue that a partnership with America Online would bring us," Ryan said.

In the short run, the Mercury is making less through its subscription news service on the Web than it did on AOL, Ryan said. But in the long run, it expects to make much more on the Web because ultimately, the Web reaches more people.

The Times, one of the nation's premier media properties, didn't have to make the same choice that the Mercury did.

The way Martin Nisenholtz sees it, the two platforms don't compete.

"The fact is the two platforms are completely complementary," said Nisenholtz, president of the New York Times Electronic Media Company.

"The Web and America Online are independent entities as far as we're concerned. Most of the usage on the Web comes during the day and comes from businesses. Most of our usage from AOL comes in prime time and on weekends," he said. The Times expects to sell advertising on both platforms.

Nisenholtz added that many AOL users still access the online world through low-speed modems that make surfing the Web frustrating or impossible. By being on both entities, the Times can achieve its primary objective--to reach as many people as possible.

Steve Outing, an interactive media consultant who runs Planetary News, agreed that the two platforms reach different audiences. For companies like the New York Times, the investment is probably worth it. But for most papers, the cost to reach both audiences is prohibitive. "Unless you've got a lot of resources to throw around, it's not necessarily a wonderful thing to be handling both," he said.

In the case where a newspaper only had money for one medium, Outing was clear on which they should choose. "Without a doubt," he said, "focus your efforts on the Web."