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Old media make big moves online

The television networks scoffed at Ted Turner when he launched CNN. Now, the South is rising again, this time on the Net.

ATLANTA--The television networks scoffed at Ted Turner when he launched CNN in 1980. But the brash Southerner won over many of their loyal viewers and taught them a costly lesson.

Now Turner's CNN, bought by Time Warner last year, is taking on CBS, NBC, and ABC again--this time on the Internet. As reported by CNET's NEWS.COM, CNN Interactive is expected to unveil a Web site tomorrow that offers custom news and information, turning up the heat on news Web sites from CBS, ABC, and MSNBC.

CNN Interactive already has three other Web sites--CNN Interactive, CNNfn, and AllPolitics, which together receive 25 million page views weekly.

But CNN isn't the only game in town. Another Atlanta-based media giant, Cox Enterprises, also is expanding on the Web. Executives disclosed today that its one-year-old Cox Interactive Media arm plans to launch seven city guides--in San Francisco, Miami, Pittsburgh, Orlando, Florida; West Palm Beach, Florida; Charlotte, North Carolina; and Dayton, Ohio--all in the next two months.

This summer, Cox also plans to begin selling classified ads online through its daily newspapers in Atlanta and Austin, Texas. By year's end, Cox Interactive will have 35 news and entertainment Web sites, up from just two now. (Another arm of the company, Cox Communications, is a shareholder in Net access provider @Home.)

This online version of "the South will rise again" offers a good case study of the move by the traditional media--CNN in TV and radio, and Cox in print, TV, and radio--to the Web. "We're not like a San Francisco or New York, but Atlanta has a big presence" on the Net, said Scott Woelfel, vice president and editor in chief of two-year-old CNN Interactive.

That's not to say these Web sites are without detractors. Although Woelfel says video is one of CNN Interactive's biggest assets--he cites a clip of the Miami tornado as a big draw--some users complain that it is slow and grainy on their PCs.

Cox's city guide for Atlanta, dubbed Access Atlanta, also has its critics. "I'm a theater nut, and [the Web site] reflects a poor attitude toward arts and culture in Atlanta" because of its lack of information, said Michael Kape, editor of Atlanta Theatre Weekly, a newspaper for the performing arts. "It's 'Non-access Atlanta' if you want to give it a name."

Cox Interactive spokeswoman Marleen Burford said the page views from Access Atlanta are exceeding expectations by more than 100 percent. "Certainly, you're going to have people who have different opinions," she said. The Web site has featured artists as chat guests, Burford added.

Like any Internet company, CNN and Cox are expanding to the Net because of the surge in Web advertising. But the strategy also is a defensive one. Both companies want to protect their turf: TV is losing viewers to the Net, and both TV and newspapers are losing ad dollars to Internet companies. Yahoo, CitySearch, AOL's Digital City, and even Microsoft, are launching their own city guides, cutting into TV and print ad revenue.

Despite the mounting competition, both companies have strengths. While less Web savvy than many Internet companies, the content and branding from a CNN or a $5 billion media giant such as Cox carries weight with many Netizens. For the media companies, running a Web site is cheaper than printing a newspaper or airing an 24-hour news station.

"We feel uniquely advantaged because Cox Interactive has such promotional and content leverage throughout traditional media in key markets around the United States," said Peter Winter, president of Cox Interactive Media. "That includes markets where we have TV stations that are obvious leaders in audience and ad sales; strong and robust newspapers such as the Atlanta Journal and Constitution; and 43 radio stations that, like our cable operations, are clustered in key markets.

"These resources will be the very important in building interactive communities through our products."

CNN is leveraging a news organization of more than 3,000 journalists and producers in 31 bureaus worldwide, according to Woelfel. The site contains almost 100,000 pages, including more than 120,000 image files, 21,000 sound files, and 3,800 QuickTime video clips.

They also represent an engine of job growth, while much of the traditional media business is cutting back. CNN Interactive burst out of its quarters on the ground floor of CNN center and work now is under way to add office space on the tower's tenth floor. It has more than 130 dedicated employees in Atlanta.

Cox Interactive, with about 150 workers in Atlanta and another 50 throughout the country, occupies a refurbished warehouse that once was Atlanta's only automaker. The neighborhood, which is undergoing gentrification, is less than one-quarter of a mile from the headquarters of Coca-Cola.

"We're on a hiring spree," Cox's Burford said.