FOCUS: INFORMATION SERVICES - Wired for sounding out the industry - As the market for providing electronic information expands, providers are having to tailor their products to avoid information fatigues

While electronic developments are making information more sophisticated and widely available, they are not necessarily making life any easier.

While electronic developments are making information more

sophisticated and widely available, they are not necessarily making life

any easier.

As more companies do global business, information providers are under

greater pressure to access international sources.

In September, to meet this growing demand, competitors Financial Times

Information, Dow Jones Interactive Publishing and Knight-Ridder

Information joined forces to launch World Reporter, a new online

database. Through the respective services each company provides, this

offers users access to news and business information from around the

world that previously was not available online or in electronic


At the World Reporter Data Collection Centre in London a team of skilled

linguists translate and summarise articles from international

newspapers, newswires and business magazines and within hours the news

is available in English on the database.

But as the wealth of information sources grows, so does the danger of

information overload for users. So, increasingly, providers are looking

to tailor their services.

In September, Reuters’ charitable arm, the Reuters Foundation, launched

its new web service AlertNet to advise relief agencies on sudden

disasters and humanitarian emergencies. The site carries constantly

updated Reuters news stories and a reference section of over 65 country

profiles with key information on communications and travel. A major

asset is a password protected zone providing vital confidentiality.

Here, relief agencies can safely swap advice and information. They can

also coordinate the practicalities of relief operations, such as sharing


Kim Tomkins, marketing manager at FT Information, says her company is

constantly looking for ways to develop technologies that push the

information to the user. At the Online Exhibition at Earls Court in

December, visitors will be able to preview FT’s web-based NewsAlert

service. Tomkins says: ’This will allow you to set up portfolios of

interests, and when a relevant news item comes in, a message will flash

up on your screen.’

She also thinks that, increasingly, companies will access information

through intranets. This is a view shared by Reuters director of media

relations, Peter Thomas. He says this is a key growth area across the

industry. He points out the cost benefits to users and says: ’An

intranet means an organisation can overcome current internet problems

such as performance and security.’

Jonathan Shepherd, marketing director of press cuttings agency Durrants,

says: ’We would love to be able to deliver cuttings on intranets, but we

are still prevented by the law.’ As the company specialises in early

morning services to City clients, electronic delivery would be


He says the company has all the systems in place to offer such a

service, but the current NLA licence forbids on-line distribution. The

NLA says it is close to launching a scheme to allow electronic

distribution, pending a publishers’ mandate.

He dismisses the argument that electronic distribution of news cuttings

would sound the death-knell for traditional newspapers, by pointing to

their ability to stand alongside the likes of Teletext. ’Rather than

abolish newspapers, we want to put a small targeted number of cuttings

on intranets as an efficiency measure,’ he says.

However, he sees the internet as offering huge expansion opportunities

for Durrants. His company is currently testing internet monitoring with

selected clients, and plans to offer a comprehensive service by the end

of the year.

The Romeike Group already offers such a service through its subsidiary

net.cut launched at the beginning of the year. This monitors thousands

of UK web sites including over 200 newsgroups and more than 400 internet

editions of newspapers and magazines. In May it launched PRINT -

Publications to Read on The Internet. This is a list of all UK

publications which have both a printed and online version. At the same

time it also launched its PuRe award scheme to help identify quality

internet-only publications.

PA News new media director, Mark Hird says: ’The internet now forms the

largest part of our business.’ He sees the development of new technology

and services as simply broadening the market his company reaches.

PA supplies and manages content for a host of services including

Kellogg’s Better Breakfast Briefing e-mail and the Nationwide Building

Society web site. In addition, at the end of September, PA became a Gold

Channel provider for Microsoft’s new Internet Explorer 4.0 - a mechanism

that runs on a desktop and browses the internet for priority


While increasing internet growth presents an opportunity for PA, Hird

sees it as a danger to others. He says: ’The traditional media has to

face the threat that brands are now able to reach out directly to the

end user.’ He points to the popularity of branded services such as the

FA Carling Premiership site, which features the latest football

information with an area for fans to ’chat’.

Colin Taylor, marketing manager of marketing communications agency PiMS,

says that technological developments place ever greater demands on his

company. As there is no single preferred format for receiving

information, each new technology just adds another layer.

He says: ’It’s a question of finding an acceptable form of delivery.’

Depending on usage, some clients access PiMS media database information

online, while others receive a monthly updated CD-ROM or use the


He says: ’There are still people who prefer a simple paper


He also highlights the dangers of information delivery by e-mail. He

points out that many people still view it as a very personal form of

communication, so find electronic press releases an unacceptable

intrusion. This is a problem that PR companies are currently


Many PR agencies have recently conducted research on how its audiences

like to receive information. Findings across the board indicate a fairly

clear cut division, with hi-tech journalists happy to receive e-mail,

while others still tend to prefer hard copy.

Gareth Zundel, Harvard group PR director, says: ’The PR business is

about relationships, so it is the role of the PR person to deliver

information in a sensitive way.’ He also thinks it is important not to

lose sight of the need for creativity when using new technology.

Last month, his company launched a mini video camera for Augur

Industries which works in conjunction with a PC for recording video

e-mail or v-mail (where video files are sent over the e-mail system). As

part of the launch the agency sent a v-mail to 50 selected journalists

with PCs, which resulted in considerable interest from Sky News and 50

product reviews in the specialist and lifestyle press.

Head of Text 100’s personal technology unit, Sophie Brooks, thinks that

it is tempting for companies to adopt technology without looking at the

need first. She says: ’As a hi-tech service provider, we have to show

good practice and use new technology responsibly.’

She highlights the communications opportunities the internet offers, but

also thinks the medium has changed Text’s role. She says that in the

past news was used as a bargaining tool with the media. But as a growing

number of clients post news on the internet, she says the agency is more

involved in adding value - providing opinion rather than fact.

Andrew Smith, A Plus head of new media services, says: ’Technology can

make certain activities more efficient, but ultimately it is there to

serve us, not the other way round.’ He points to the growth of the

internet as a valuable research tool and also as another medium for PR

to reach audiences unfiltered by the traditional media.

However, he sees no threat to his agency’s role from clients’ ability to

access more news and data. He says: ’Gathering information is one thing,

knowing what to do with it is another. What will never go away is our

added value of interpretation and advice on how to act.’

Instant access: Telecom providers branch out

As traditional office working patterns change, telecom service providers

are looking to meet the information needs of people on the move. Last

October, BT introduced its Touchpoint interactive multimedia kiosks at

selected sites in the London area.

Users have access by touch-screen technology to the latest information

on sport, news, weather, leisure and entertainment.

BT worked closely with brand leaders, such as British Airways, the

Guardian, Halifax and Interflora to tie the content in with the high

street. The information is free to browse, while some in-depth

information and print-outs such as local street maps require a small

charge. In addition to competitions and special offers, users can book

flights and holidays, order tickets to a range of events and buy

flowers, wine and gifts.

In July, research conducted by BMRB International showed that there are

now an estimated 400,000 users each month. Over 80 per cent are in the

15-34 age group, with the majority using the service to access

entertainment and leisure information.

This September Cellnet launched Genie, a service that combines the

internet with the convenience and reach of a mobile phone. Users can

access up-to-date news and information from the Genie web site delivered

free of charge, direct to their Cellnet digital mobile phone via text

messages or to any e-mail address.

The Genie web site brings together up-to-date information on news and

current affairs, sport, finance, entertainment and careers. Information

providers currently include the Press Association, ICV, Reuters and


The Sharewatch service gives regular updates of the FTSE-100 value, top

ten movers, and values of any UK listed share. Entertainment features

include Night and Day, a national weekly entertainment listing, giving

details of cinema, theatre, comedy dance and music, and a full national

TV and radio guide.

The advantage of this service is that you can request to be alerted to

the information that you want, from specific share movement details to

when tickets for your favourite band go on sale.

In the coming months, Cellnet plans to extend this personalised alert

service to cover football, rugby, Formula 1 racing information, UK news,

jobs and travel. It also plans to launch a ’radio on demand’ service,

which will allow access to personalised news and sports voice


Football fans for instance will be able to hear recorded reports about

their team’s latest signings or injury worries.

On-line navigation: The human factor

With the explosive growth of the web and the vast quantity of data

available, finding the right information can often be a hit and miss


According to Andrew Smith, A Plus head of new media services, rather

than use search engines, his group has begun to use intelligent agent

package Agentware, developed by Cambridge based company, AutoNomy. This

product does the surfing for you and then reports back.

Smith says: ’It provides sophisticated monitoring, as rather than input

simple keywords, you can ask it questions.’ What’s more, it refines its

search as it goes along. An advantage is that depending on your

viewpoint, it emulates human behaviour by actually ’learning’ from its


However, it seems that while intelligence software is becoming more

sophisticated, it is still not as clever as the average human being. The

Romeike Group’s net.cut internet monitoring service uses purpose-built

agent software to identify possible press cuttings. But the software

alone is not enough.

To check that cuttings are appropriate, it also uses real people -

trained readers - to double-check selections against client


Ralph Averbuch, producer of internet media company Yahoo!, thinks that

it is this personal touch that makes his company so popular. ’We have a

thin veneer of technology with humans on either side,’ he says.


offers a range of service options, including the personalised My


and brings together content about everything from sport and news to

weather and personal finance. At the end of October, it also launched a

continuous stock market news and data service. However, its listing of

almost one million worldwide web sites provides a popular search tool

for users.

Unlike search engines, which automatically sift through all internet

pages, listing every instance of every word of every web site,


classifies sites submitted by users of the service in a unique hierarchy

of over 180,000 categories. By starting with 14 key categories, it

enables a logical search process and provides ease of use.

Averbuch says that it is a common misconception to classify the site as

a search engine, and is very keen to stress that it is, in fact an

’online navigational Internet guide’. The key difference is that


catalogues web sites using a team of real people. In other words, for a

new site to be listed by Yahoo!, its team of professional surfers has to

know about it and review its value, rather than any software programme

randomly picking it up.

Case study: Streamlining the paperwork

Two years ago, VNU Business Publications was being swamped by a large

volume of press information from the IT industry in various different

formats. Multiple copies of the same news releases and press packs were

arriving by post and fax. Some were addressed to the wrong person and

others to people who no longer worked there.

In a fit of desperation, the company sent out a universal request to

receive information electronically, with a list of acceptable formats

and addresses. This had little impact. With over 320 hi-tech journalists

working on 14 different titles, VNU needed to solve the problem.

At the end of last year, PA-owned communications company Two-Ten wanted

to improve its provision to hi-tech PR executives by extending its wire

facilities into the magazine market. So it offered VNU a unique,

free-of-charge IT dedicated news wire called the Universal News Service,

designed to reduce information overload.

At the time, the publisher was in the process of spending over pounds 1

million updating its central IT system to Lotus Notes. So, rather than

provide a bolt on service, Two-Ten was able to integrate its service

into VNU’s new editorial network.

According to Bill Leask, Two-Ten’s research and development director,

the service launched in February is ’real-time’. After electronic

receipt of a release from a client, his company standardises the format

and coding and transmits the copy on the hi-tech wire. Journalists at

VNU are then able to access the information through a desktop icon

within ten minutes.

All releases with a contact e-mail address have a click-back box

enabling direct communication back to the originator. In addition, all

releases are text searchable and archived on VNU’s press information

system each night, so their lifespan is extended to provide background

material for researchers and feature writers.

The editors of the IT supplements of the Times, the Telegraph, the

Financial Times and the Independent also receive wire copy into their

editorial systems via PA’s satellite network.

Over the past nine months, the service has expanded to include

transmission by preferred e-mail address to other relevant, hi-tech

journalists at Dennis, Ziff Davis, Future and Reed Business

Publications. At present, Two-Ten is in negotiations with other

publishing houses in the UK and Europe, and hopes to add them to its

e-mail circuit soon.

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