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Newspaper execs gather for Net education

The nation's newspaper executives are gathering this week for a crash course on the Internet at the Editor & Publisher Interactive Newspapers conference.

ATLANTA--The nation's newspaper executives are gathering here this week for a crash course on the Internet.

Although many executives once dismissed the Net as a fad, they now see it as vital to their publications' future. They need look no further than their own ink-stained papers, which are reporting a rapid run-up in Net stocks that has made young companies Yahoo and Amazon.com worth more than many venerable media giants, including the New York Times Company.

"It's an immersion course in what's out there," said Dale Steinke, new-media editor of the Washington Post Company-owned Everett (Washington) Herald, at the Editor & Publisher Interactive Newspapers conference, one of the largest such annual gatherings. "I've become more confused by all the possibilities."

In a speech today, Bloomberg News chief executive Michael Bloomberg threw cold water on Net publishing. He told the executives: "I wouldn't buy a Net stock," suggesting that share prices are too high, and he also reminded them that most Net companies are money losers. "Serious people" will always read newspapers, he added.

But the nation's newspapers are taking the plunge anyway, despite the financial risks and the peril of "cannibalizing" their own flagship products.

Faced with less-than-stellar growth, however, the industry must find new ways to boost circulation and sales. Most importantly, they must protect their "crown jewels"--classified advertising sales, which some Net start-ups are going after.

So like it or not, the executives are gathering here to learn, if they didn't already, about companies with odd-sounding names such as GeoCities, iVillage, Tripod, AngelFire, DoubleClick, and Zip2. They are getting the scoop on "cookies" (not the edible kind) and combing the exhibit booths, listening to pitches about putting TV listings and real-time weather forecasts on their Web sites.

"I'm looking for new ways to get our editorial and classified content onto the Web," said Stuart Castergine, Internet administrator for the Columbus Dispatch, as he was cruising the showroom floor. "There's still a shortage of solutions for getting display ads on the Web."

Today two decidedly non-newspaper types who also happen to be multimillionare Net entrepreneurs--GeoCities chairman David Bohnett and Tripod CEO Bo Peabody--lectured on the merits of providing real-time chat on newspaper Web sites. Their message: Go for it.

Online auctions are hot, and so is the booth for Auction Universe, which provides a system for newspapers to implement online classifieds and auctions.

"There's tremendous interest because this is one of the few models online that has proven an ability to make a profit," said G. Patton Hughes, whose title is "gorilla marketer" for Auction Universe.

Among the other dozens of exhibitors are IBM, Los Angeles Times Syndicate New Media, Tribune Media Services, Dow Jones & Company, and Ticketmaster Online-CitySearch.

Despite the risks of migrating to the Web, the nation's newspapers don't want anybody to think they're being flat-footed. This week, Knight Ridder's San Jose Mercury News launched "SiliconValley.com," a Web site dedicated to technology news. The site also offers a contest to win a digital camera.

Cox Interactive Media, another Net pioneer from the print world, continues expanding its Web sites. One of its sites, BlackFamilies.com, is a place "for African-American adults who believe family is the most import thing in their lives." Cox also continues expanding its city- and regional-oriented sites, such as Access Atlanta, GoCarolinas.com, and Austin360.com.

Not to be outdone, the Los Angeles Times has a special online report for one of the year's biggest gatherings in "La-La Land," next month's Academy Awards ceremony. Along with a list of nominees and an Oscar quiz, it includes a contest to pick the winners. Prizes include a $250 gift certificate to buy movies at Reel.com, the online movie retailer.