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Webcast meets Wall Street

Gold mining company today will use Webcasting to link shareholders and computer users to its annual meeting.

Webcasting isn't just for concerts anymore. Try shareholder meetings.

Gold mining company Arauco Resouces (ARU) today offered what it calls one of the first shareholders meetings to be Webcast.

But is this a path that investors and Wall Street analysts really want to venture down?

The meeting, though a technological success, lacked the body heat generated by a live presentation. Images of executives giving presentations moved stiffly across the computer screen, similar to flip-book animation.

Arauco executives, who were hoping to bring its 15,000 shareholders together with the Webcast, splashed up some slides and presented their financial picture to those present and to investors tuning in from their PCs.

Kerry Knoll, investor relations director at Toronto-based Arauco, said "We have very few shareholders in Toronto, so we spent a few thousand bucks to reach our shareholders and let them participate."

Though the quality was not on a par with television, "The obvious choice was to try it," Knoll said.

Arauco officials said the Webcast was designed to give investors, potential investors, and analysts access to the company's management without incurring the expense of a trip. Remote participants could converse with the company via email during the meeting.

Robert Chaplinsky, an analyst at Hambrect & Quist, is concerned that fielding questions by email allows companies to be selective about which questions and issues it discusses.

"But if I'm actually there, I can make sure that they can't avoid questions," Chaplinsky said.

He added that although Webcast meetings give him the option to sign in without leaving the office, he questions his endurance to embrace the format. It is easy to pass three hours at a shareholders meeting, but another issue to stare at a computer screen for three hours, he said.

"I think the technology is here, we just need some enhancements," Chaplinsky said.

For reasons that include technology limitations and expense, Webcast shareholder meetings may not take off right away.

Jackie Parker, investor relations manager at Intel (INTC), said it is very expensive to present meetings live online, when it is much cheaper to post them afterwards on the company's Web site for individuals to access.

"We go back and forth on the idea. We know we have the technology, but we have so many different events that we host that [the shareholder meeting] might not be the best one to put online. There are much more interesting meetings to offer, but we will probably consider it again next year," Parker said. (Intel is an investor in CNET: The Computer Network)

The convenience of viewing a meeting at home should not replace other channels of participation, said Ann Yerger, director of research for the Council for Institutional Investors.

She stressed the importance of shareholder involvement. Said Yerger: "Anything that can broaden shareholder participation is a good thing."