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Pathfinder will divide to conquer

Pathfinder, criticized for its lack of focus and poor management, is following a Net trend and reorganizing its site into six distinct channels.

Pathfinder, criticized for its lack of focus and poor management, is following a Net trend and reorganizing its site into six distinct channels, the company told CNET today.

As part of Pathfinder's attempt to redefine itself strictly as an editorial site with content based on Time Warner properties such as Life, People, and Sports Illustrated magazines, four Time Warner record labels have been booted off.

The reason given was that they were more promotional than editorial. In their place, Pathfinder is launching its own music site, MusicBase.

Pathfinder also has completely redesigned The Netly News, its popular Net culture magazine. The revamped site, designed by Razorfish, will launch Monday, according to Netly News executive producer Josh Quittner.

Site editors call the redesign a "facelift," according to Meg Siesfeld, Pathfinder's managing editor of new media. "We've kept all the components but we've reorganized the way content is presented."

In other words, Pathfinder will still include all properties owned by Time Warner, but instead of the site linking to specific properties, it will link to the following areas: news, money and business, people and entertainment, sports, Net culture and living.

The reorganization is a step in the right direction, said Bill Bass, an analyst with Forrester Research, who wrote a brief critical of Pathfinder.

But, he said, it doesn't go far enough. Bass had recommended that Time Warner simply dissolve Pathfinder, which is a difficult site to navigate, and instead build completely separate sites based on its properties.

Channels will help readers identify content, but, Bass added, the media company probably could get more bang for its buck by launching separate sites. "Pathfinder is unified by the fact that Time Warner owns all those properties. That's an internal reason to design a site rather than an external reason. Consumers don't care that Time Warner owns all these things."

However it organizes itself--and no matter what the criticism--Pathfinder is still a popular Web site with an average of 10 million page views a week, Siesfeld said. The redesign, she said, "is a matter of improving, refining, and adding depth of content to each content category.

"It's a question of making it better, making it easier for the user, taking advantage of new technologies as they're introduced," she added.

The changes, overall, at Pathfinder come amid criticism that the site is unfocused, poorly managed, and hemorrhaging money and managers.

Pathfinder lost three top managers last year. The last departure was Paul Sagan on December 20. Sagan, president and editor of new media at Time, was replaced by Dan Okrent, who will serve as editor of new media; Norman Pearlstine will be president of new media for the next several months. Okrent was last managing editor of Life and comes with high praise. Pearlstine is the editor in chief of Time Warner.

The company has its work cut out for it, critics say. For instance, Webmasters for the departing record labels said that just before Thanksgiving, they were told that they would have to move before the busy Christmas season.

"We thought it was handled really poorly," said one manager, who declined to be identified. "The situation with Pathfinder is that they decided to kick the music sites off. They gave the music sites relatively little time to do it and the arrogant way in which they did that edged a lot of people, but it's its not uncharacteristic."

Siesfeld said the labels had been given several months of lead time. "I wish everything could be perfect," she said. "I hope we were as helpful as possible."

Those four labels--Elektra, Discovery Records, Warner Music Canada, and Rhino Records--have all found new homes on the Net.