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Net publishing faces dilemma

As software companies turn increasingly to deals with online publications to showcase their Web technology, some observers are wondering if these agreements will become deals with the devil.

Software companies such as Netscape Communications and Microsoft are increasingly turning to deals with electronic publications to showcase or sell their Web technology. But some observers are wondering if these agreements may be the online publishing world's version of deals with the devil.

In the past two weeks, both Netscape and Microsoft have kicked off the launch of their new Web browsers by announcing technology and marketing partnerships with the online editions of established newspapers such as the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, both of which do extensive coverage of technology companies. The publishers of this Web site, CNET: The Computer Network, also have technology relationships with Microsoft and Netscape, as do many other online publications.

The question is whether a partnership between a publication and a browser vendor or some other technology company that has brought either marketing or technical benefits to the publication will influence coverage of technology companies.

"I am pleased to see that most of the other contributors to this discussion are very much of the same opinion as myself, namely that it is shocking that a supposedly impartial and highly reputed Journal as yourselves should 'side' with one or other of the protagonists in the browser battle," wrote one concerned Wall Street Journal Interactive reader in an online forum, hosted by the newspaper regarding the newspaper's deal with Microsoft.

The Wall Street Journal Interactive is giving users of Internet Explorer, but not of Netscape Navigator or other browsers, free access to the online edition of the publication.

One might think that readers would be grateful for a good deal. But instead the partnership has stirred discussion, much of it critical, about the increasingly close relationship between technology and content companies on the Net.

Some long-time media critics are troubled by the increasingly close relationships being forged between publications and technology companies.

"If Bill Gates and Microsoft have certain kinds of problems--be they labor or economic--will they be reported on dispassionately by the papers that they are now partners with? I think that's a good question," said Ben Bagdikian, professor emeritus at University of California at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism and author of Media Monopoly, a critique of consolidation among news conglomerates. "The historical record is not good."

For example, Microsoft has purchased subscriptions in bulk to the for-subscription-only publication for users of its browser. Like a number of other Web sites, including CNET, the Journal is also showcasing Microsoft's ActiveX technology in the implementation of its Web site. This is the kind of high-profile, prestigious example that Microsoft would love to point to in its own marketing.(Executives from both Microsoft and Netscape declined to comment on the specifics of their relationships.)

Netscape and Microsoft aren't only companies enabling online publishing. Telecommunications companies also are teaming with newspapers to offer dial-up Internet access for residents.

In one such deal, Pacific Bell Internet joined forces with the Los Angeles Times to develop a service targeted at Southern California. In addition to Internet access, customers get a customized browser that lets them find content geared for the region. The pact also calls for cross-links to each companies' home page. But a Pac Bell representative denied that the deal had any influence on the coverage of Pac Bell in the L.A. Times.

Publications, of course, are vigorously defending themselves against suggestions that such relationship will result in biased coverage. They maintain that there is an impassable "Chinese Wall" between editors and the business side of the publications.

"Yes, we're using technology from Microsoft," said Neil Budde, editor of the Wall Street Journal Interactive. "Does that make us a pawn of Microsoft? No. Our position is these decisions are marketing decisions," Budde said.

Such relationships are not unprecedented. Representatives of other publications dismiss the criticisms by pointing out that print newspapers too have long standing relationships with distribution partners in the printing press and paper industries. For example, one might question how coverage of the timber and paper industries has been affected by the fact that newsprint is one of a daily newspaper's major expenditures.

But such relationships haven't changed coverage of the paper industry, according to Martin Nisenholtz, president of the New York Times Electronic Media Company. The Times has a relationship to distribute its content to users of Netscape Navigator, and Navigator only, via email.

"Our distribution agreements are entirely separate from our editorial decision-making," Nisenholtz said. "I don't think anybody has accused us of treading lightly on companies that make presses or forest products."

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