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Posted On: Oct. 4, 1998 12:00 AM CST

BATON ROUGE, La. -- Commercial organizations -- including the current owner of the RISKWeb electronic discussion forum for risk managers -- as well as professional groups are investigating the opportunity to co-sponsor the forum.

The prospect of a commercially sponsored forum does not bother some RISKWeb subscribers. They said their primary concern is that the forum's free-flowing discussion format not be changed.

Meanwhile, the Bermuda-based consultant that temporarily provided a substitute e-mail discussion when RISKWeb was shut down and its future was uncertain late last month plans to make that new forum a permanent complement to RISKWeb and its successor.

Last Wednesday's previously announced deadline for terminating RISKWeb passed without the forum's owner shutting down the service. In a message to RISKWeb subscribers the previous weekend, forum moderator James R. Garven confirmed that Louisiana State University would be the forum's new sponsor and that RISKWeb would continue to operate without interruption until its operations were moved to LSU from owner InsWeb Corp. of San Mateo, Calif.

When it is moved to LSU, the forum will be called RISKMail, Mr. Garven noted in his posting.

InsWeb, an online comparison shopping service for buyers of personal insurance, shut down RISKWeb in August without warning because the forum did not fit into the company's business plan. An outpouring of complaints from subscribers persuaded InsWeb to resurrect the forum until Sept. 30 to give Mr. Garven, an LSU finance professor and the forum's creator, time to find a new sponsor (BI, Sept. 28, Aug. 24).

But, in his posting to RISKWeb subscribers, Mr. Garven indicated that InsWeb would be a sponsor, in addition to other corporate and professional organizations and societies.

An InsWeb spokesman last week confirmed that InsWeb's continued participation with the forum is "a possibility." He would not further discuss developments about RISKWeb until all the details of the plan are finalized. The final plan is "imminent," he said.

Mr. Garven could not be reached for comment.

Unclear is what impact InsWeb's potential continued involvement with the forum would have on the future of archived RISKWeb discussions and the forum's subscription list.

The InsWeb spokesman last month said the company hoped to make the archives available to the forum's new sponsor, if some legal issues concerning privacy and copyrights could be resolved.

In addition, at a time when InsWeb was planning to cut all ties with the forum, the spokesman said the company would not make the forum's subscription list available. Under that scenario, current RISKWeb subscribers would have to contact the new sponsor via e-mail and request a subscription to the new forum. If the new sponsor obtains the list, the sponsor could automatically subscribe RISKWeb users to the new forum.

Besides InsWeb, a client service unit of broker Aon Corp. is investigating becoming a corporate sponsor of RISKMail. AonLine, Aon's online extranet client service, is interested in becoming a co-sponsor and is awaiting information from Mr. Garven about a co-sponsor's obligations and benefits, according to Mia Shernoff, managing director of AonLine in New York.

Among professional organizations, the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc. has requested sponsorship information, said Linda Lamel, executive director. "We're always interested in playing a role in facilitating dialogue among risk managers," Ms. Lamel said.

In his e-mail posting, Mr. Garven promised to circulate a formal sponsorship agreement to all interested organizations.

A couple of additional organizations are moving a little more gingerly.

The Insurance Information Institute in New York first wants more information about how the forum works and Mr. Garven's plans, a spokeswoman said.

The American Institute for Chartered Property Casualty Underwriters and the Insurance Institute of America in Malvern, Pa., are taking a wait-and-see approach to RISKMail before considering sponsorship, according to Terrie E. Troxel, president and chief executive officer of the institutes. "Because the institutes' interests are in professional education, we will look at the educational aspect of RISKMail as it evolves and see if there is an appropriate role for the institutes," Mr. Troxel said.

In his e-mail posting, Mr. Garven wrote that with a broadened sponsorship, "not only will our group continue to grow and prosper, but it will also make it possible to enhance and improve the quality of what we already have in place."

Dave Parker, director of risk management for Pima County, Ariz., and a RISKWeb subscriber, had hoped RISKWeb's replacement setting would be educational rather than commercial. But, he said Mr. Garven's plan to make available co-sponsorships to commercial organizations does not trouble him.

"I think it's more of how you do it rather than whether you do it," Mr. Parker said.

He said he has discussed with Mr. Garven the problems of so-called "spam-mail," or e-mail that hawks products or ties up a system with bogus messages. Based on those discussions, Mr. Parker said he does not believe that corporate sponsorship will lead to obtrusive advertising but that sponsorship "will provide resources to expand the service."

For example, Mr. Garven has expanded RISKWeb services by adding a search engine to facilitate the retrieval of archived messages. Now, visitors at the RISKWeb Web site at can search for discussion threads using keywords rather than sorting through every posted message.

"It takes money to do the things he's been doing," Mr. Parker said.

Culver City, Calif.-based attorney Barry Zalma, a RISKWeb subscriber and a frequent contributor, agrees with Mr. Parker.

Referring to Mr. Garven's light touch as moderator in directing RISKWeb discussions, Mr. Zalma said: "As long as the list stays like it is, I don't care if someone wants to send me a commercial. I don't care if someone wants to put their logo on top. Nothing is free."

Corporate sponsorship likely would not indirectly influence or stifle certain discussions on RISKWeb, agreed Messrs. Zalma and Parker.

Mr. Zalma predicted that no single sponsor likely would contribute such a large amount that subscribers would feel reluctant to discuss the sponsor's business in general terms. One of the few RISKWeb rules prohibits subscribers from discussing specific products or commenting on companies and individuals by name.

RISKWeb subscriber Kevin M. Quinley, senior vp-risk services for MEDMARC Mutual Insurance Co. of Fairfax, Va., does foresee commercial sponsorship causing some subscribers to become more circumspect with their comments.

Some subscribers may fear that corporate sponsorship will lead to the sale of subscribers' e-mail addresses, Mr. Quinley said. In addition, some subscribers may feel threatened that their remarks may be used to their disadvantage if a competitor is a co-sponsor of the forum.

But, those risks "exist to an equal degree in a forum that is not corporate-sponsored," Mr. Quinley observed. Those that would use a list of the e-mail addresses for the forum's subscribers and competitors already could be lurking silently in the forum, he said.

Meanwhile, RiskBiz, the discussion forum that was set up as a stop-gap measure when InsWeb shut down RISKWeb for a week last month, will continue indefinitely.

Bill Storie, chairman of the list server's owner, Bermuda-based insurance consulting firm William R. Storie & Co. Ltd., envisions RiskBiz as a complementary forum to RISKWeb. "We're absolutely not competing," he said.

Mr. Storie said RISKWeb's discussions are academic in nature, while RiskBiz discussions will take on a more business-oriented and international flavor.

That is what a survey of the forum's 350 subscribers -- 37% of which responded -- indicated they wanted.

"How that manifests itself remains to be seen," Mr. Storie said.

However, one example that he said would illustrate the difference between the two forums is that RiskBiz will allow subscribers to ask questions "of a specific nature" about a company or service. Those wishing to respond could contact the questioner privately.

"RISKWeb and RISKMail won't allow you to ask that kind of question," and if the question got through, subscribers would object to it, Mr. Storie said.

While Mr. Storie's view of RiskBiz's mission interested some subscribers, they did not fully agree with his characterization of RISKWeb.

"If Storie views RiskBiz as filling a void not addressed by RISKWeb, it makes some sense. But, I don't know if there's enough conversation like that to keep it going," Mr. Quinley said.

Mr. Quinley and others said they would not describe RISKWeb as an academic discussion forum, because subscribers often discuss practical issues that they face.

In addition, while RISKWeb does not encourage subscribers to use the forum to arrange private discussions about a company, product or individual, "it's OK" to do so, Mr. Parker said.

RISKWeb was designed, though, to discuss principles and practical problems, not specific companies, Mr. Parker said.

Mr. Zalma said RiskBiz could be a useful complement to RISKMail, if it gives a little more leeway to risk managers, third-party administrators, lawyers, and claims handlers to offer their services to other subscribers. "It could be a useful thing, as long as it doesn't get out of hand," Mr. Zalma said.

Mr. Storie said he plans on posting once a month to RiskBiz and to the electronic journal he also publishes all of the "infomercials" he has received. Mr. Stories described infomercials as announcements of new products and services.

In addition, Mr. Storie said he is considering charging a small fee for the infomercials as well as offering sponsorships of the e-mail list and the journal. If the site is sponsored, any proceeds that exceed the cost of running the site would go to an educational and research fund that would, among other things, provide grants and scholarships, Mr. Storie said.

Mr. Storie estimated the cost of operating RiskBiz and the electronic journal at $4,000 to $5,000 monthly, with the e-mail service accounting for one-third of the cost.

To subscribe to RiskBiz, e-mail to the message "subscribe to RiskBiz.'