KNIGHT-RIDDER and eight other daily newspaper publishers in the United States have formed the New Century Network to distribute news stories, financial reports and job adverts on the Internet. Tony Ridder, president and chief executive of Knight-Ridder, said in Hong Kong last week that New Century had 'a very strong future when the mass dissemination of news via computer becomes a reality'. The network expected to have about 10 papers on-line within a year and 75 papers on the system after three years. Mr Ridder said newspapers, financial services and on-line services would inevitably grow closer although they would have to maintain their distinctive qualities to appeal to different types of consumers and businesses. The printing of newspapers with an analytical and reflective character 'would remain a good business in its own right for a very long time', Mr Ridder said. Knight-Ridder publishes 28 daily newspapers in the US and owns the global, real-time-data and research service, Knight-Ridder Financial. The other members of the New Century consortium include The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, Hearst, Cox Enterprises, Newhouse Newspapers, The Times Mirror Company and the publishers of USA Today, Gannett. Together, the nine companies own about 200 daily newspapers. Mr Ridder said there were at least four US papers which already offered on-line services to consumers but these were distributed by commercial on-line services, such as Compuserve. 'We didn't want to be merely a provider to someone else's service for several reasons,' he said. 'We wanted to retain the relationship we have with our readers as customers and, rather than let the service provider collect and keep most of the income, we wanted to do our own billing.' The potential on-line market in the US is now relatively small. About 25 per cent of US households have a computer but only 10 per cent have the modem connections needed to link up to the Internet. Mr Ridder said: 'But all new home computers are being sold with built-in modems, so it is estimated that, within five years, between 40 per cent and 50 per cent of all homes will be Internet-capable. ''There may be some risk in 'cannibalising' our papers into electronic packages in terms of undercutting ourselves but we have got to. If we don't, somebody else will,' he said. Polk Laffoon IV, vice-president for corporate relations, said Knight-Ridder was a strong advocate of 'public journalism', the controversial new form of reportage, also known as civic journalism, which is now sweeping the US. 'It is an attempt to involve readers in finding solutions for civic issues - usually problems - in their own communities,' Mr Laffoon said. 'Traditionalists say reporters should only report what actually happens. If you do otherwise, they argue, you are interfering with the process. 'I find it interesting that the most vocal objectors are often other journalists, The editor of The Washington Post, for example, refuses to vote, so as not to compromise his independence,' he said. Mr Ridder said the company's editors were required to make a clear distinction between the new public journalism and the more fundamental public service journalism - commonly known as investigative reporting. 'Both have an important role but neither can have a political agenda,' he said. 'The aim of public journalism is to stimulate local communities to get to grips with their problems themselves.' Editors were also required to report annually to the main board with details of the public journalism projects they had undertaken. As a shining example of the new genre, the Knight-Ridder-owned Beacon Journal in Akron, Ohio, won the 1994 Pulitzer gold medal for its ground-breaking race relations series, A Question of Colour. In part, this called on the community to face up to the city's notorious racial problems and 22,000 signed a pledge to act. The paper then published these names as a formal record. A follow up series, Coming Together, then reported on progress made. In California, the San Jose Mercury News found the precinct with the lowest voter turnout and sponsored several meetings to encourage voters to take their civic responsibilities more seriously. At a subsequent city-wide election, the precinct recorded a substantial increase in turnout.