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Pathfinder searches for direction

Although a major restructuring plan is announced, it remains unclear whether Time's Pathfinder megasite is on the right course.

As Web publishing took off last year, many looked to Time Incorporated's Pathfinder to live up to its name and blaze the trail for others to follow.

After all, with vast resources and a blockbuster lineup of magazines to draw from, online publishing seemed like a natural extension of Time's empire. But in the 2-1/2 years since the Web megasite was founded, it has often been viewed as a surprising disappointment.

This week, the publishing powerhouse aimed to change all that, launching a major reorganization that brings the Web site back to the drawing board.

"At the moment, whatever works [is what] we're going to do," said Daniel Okrent, who came on four months ago as editor of new media.

Pathfinder announced that it would be centralizing its new media efforts, with people working for all the online units of the various magazines reporting directly to Time's new media division. The plan includes launching a variety of syndication efforts, distributing online titles to international markets, and selling subscription renewals for its magazines and merchandise online.

Linda McCutcheon Conneally, an eight-year marketing veteran with the company, will serve as president of the division. Pathfinder has split the president and editor duties into two positions, adopting a model used by Wall Street Journal Interactive and other online publications.

Analysts agreed that a major restructuring was a crucial step for Pathfinder although not everyone thinks this reorganization goes far enough.

When asked about various aspects of the new plan, Jupiter Communications analyst Mark Mooradian said that "I think those all make sense. I feel like they're starting to take a much more open approach to the Web."

Mooradian added that the wisest step was moving to syndicate some of the content. "It shows they're starting to understand the nature of the Web a little bit. It gives them ubiquity, and it builds the brand online. The whole point is to leverage their traditional properties. You have a revenue source on your hands."

But others contend that until Time dumps Pathfinder it will be doomed to at least mediocrity, if not failure. Until Time completely overhauls the way it organizes its products, they say, it will never leverage its full branding power.

"You've got to focus and the people that focus are going to be the ones that win," said Bill Bass, an analyst with Forrester Research and a longtime critic of Pathfinder. "You try to be all things to all people and you end up being a mile wide and an inch deep."

Bass agrees that with Time's star quality magazine brands--such as Sports Illustrated, People, Time, and Life--Pathfinder could really be a contender. But he and others say Time just hasn't found the right way to market those brands.

Instead of leveraging its strong brands, Bass says Pathfinder is doing the opposite by unnaturally forcing them together. It's like tying a bunch of winning race horses to one another when they all want to run in different directions. The end result is they go nowhere.

"Sports Illustrated is a champion race horse, and that's why it's kind of frustrating to see this happen."

Okrent says nobody understands the value of its brands better than he does. "The day I came here, my first words to the staff were, 'the brands, the brands, the brands,'" he said.

Pathfinder, Okrent said, is nothing more than the container that holds Time's properties together. He sees Pathfinder as analogous to a network, or a shopping mall with strong anchor tenants.

Okrent acknowledges that people are much more likely to go to People magazine than to the relatively obscure brand, Pathfinder. In fact, he doesn't expect people to go to Pathfinder first at all. That's why when you log onto the Pathfinder site today, you'll see the words printed in smaller letters in the corner. It's no longer the flagship, he added.

But once surfers find People, Okrent is counting on them using the navigation bar at the bottom of the page or going to Pathfinder to find their way to another Time Incorporated magazine.

"I see Pathfinder as the network," Okrent said. "Pathfinder is a marketing device, and it is an organizing principle. Pathfinder is not the destination. Pathfinder is the highway."

Internet editor Jeff Pelline contributed to this report.