A Bumpy Road to Newspaper Web Search/Directory Strategy

By: Steve Outing

The U.S. newspaper industry blew it two years ago. Newspaper companies should have banded together then and purchased a Web search engine company. Had the industry had that kind of foresight then, it wouldn’t be looking at the situation it faces today, with search engine/directory services like Yahoo! and Excite attracting Internet traffic at rates that dwarf that of the newspaper industry.

That view has a lot of adherents these days in the newspaper business. Newspaper executives have started to wake up to the cold hard fact that they have to do something to compete with the search engines, who continue to snap up the lion’s share of Web national advertising dollars and are aggressively going after local ads as well.

New Century Network had such a plan, using the internal code name “On Ramp,” though lack of consensus among the newspaper cyber-consortium’s nine owners caused it to flounder. NCN since last August had been developing a plan that would have given its affiliate newspaper sites a Web search engine and directory service to incorporate into their home pages. The plan was to work with a Web search engine company that would be willing to co-brand its pages with news sites in exchange for new ad revenues (or perhaps licensing fees) from the newspapers. That is, the kind of pages that you see when you visit a site like Yahoo! or Infoseek would reside on a newspaper’s Web site. Alternatively, NCN was exploring the purchase of a Web search engine company.

Says Mark Potts, a former consultant to NCN who was co-principal designer of the search engine strategy along with former NCN vice president Staci Artandi, “At a time when Yahoo! is heading into every significant piece of the newspaper business (news, classifieds — that’s plenty!) with great success, newspaper sites are behooved to try and fight Yahoo! at its own game.”

Cause for excitement

The NCN game plan got a lot of people in the interactive newspaper business excited. Michael Romaner, director of online services for Morris Communications and an NCN advisory board member, says that the search engine concept first was introduced at an NCN affiliate council meeting in Alexandria, Virginia, in November 1997. When it first was broached, “everyone had the same reaction — why hadn’t we thought of this before?” Romaner says.

The reasoning is simple enough. Consider that traffic to newspaper Web sites, as shown by NCN’s own research, in nearly all local markets is far below that of the search engines. When you quantify the Web site visits that consumers in a local market make to various sites, most newspaper sites typically don’t rank even in the top 5. In terms of sheer local traffic, newspapers are getting killed by Yahoo!, et al. Yes, you can argue that newspaper sites are mostly after news-oriented viewers and that the search engines serve a different market — it’s apples to oranges. But that argument breaks down if newspapers want national Web advertising money in addition to local ads. Plus, the search/directory companies are encroaching into the local news and classified ad space. Newspaper strategy must be to try to take away some of the search engines’ advertising largesse if news Web sites are to become reasonably profitable.

Potts says “it kills me” to see news sites sending people away to the search engine and Web directory sites. Newspaper sites must offer Web search, and they must have Web navigation services on their sites, he says. Indeed, Potts advocates putting a Web search button and link to navigation features on every single page; this functionality is so important to Web users that news sites can’t afford to let their visitors slip away because they don’t offer it.

But a Web search button is hardly enough, Potts suggests. A local site needs an extensive Web navigation scheme if it expects to serve consumers and not have them flock to Yahoo!, Excite or Infoseek when they want to find something on the Web. The NCN On Ramp project had an elaborate prototype prepared of what this might look like for a newspaper site.

Don’t count on NCN

The On Ramp project appears for the most part to be dead as an NCN-wide initiative. Artandi, who as vice president of business development was the lead NCN executive on the project, left NCN this week after the company scaled back its scope to concentrate on its newspaper Web ad network and Internet tools for newspaper sites. She says that for the newspaper industry it is “absolutely essential” that a move into the Web search/directory space be made quickly. “It should be at the top of everybody’s list.” And there are compelling reasons why newspapers should do a Web search/directory play as a group, she says, including ensuring that a search engine partner commits to the customization that newspapers will need to have search/directory functionality on their Web sites.

Artandi expects activities in the search/directory space to continue, though probably by groups of individual companies in the newspaper industry that share common goals. One of the challenges of coming up with a scheme that would please all or at least most of NCN’s nine owners was in the area of classified advertising. Some of the potential search/directory partners have classifieds strategies of their own that run counter to the interests of the newspaper industry, including partnerships with online classifieds companies like Classifieds2000, which many newspaper executives view as threatening.

Reports from others close to the OnRamp project indicate that during the last two months, NCN officials had been talking about breaking off part of NCN into a separate entity. The proposal apparently would have taken the search engine component of NCN and spun it off to an affiliated company or subsidiary — one in which not all of NCN’s nine media company owners would be part of, but presumably only those that agreed with the strategy and that do not have investments that would run counter to it. (The Tribune Co., one of NCN’s nine founding companies, owns a chunk of Excite, which might logically position it to avoid a search/directory newspaper deal with one of Excite’s competitors, for instance.)

With NCN’s failure to pull off what many believe was a promising — indeed, vital — strategy to provide Web search/navigation to newspaper sites, the industry must look for other ways to implement it. There may be other umbrella organizations that can pull it off. (Newspaper Internet tools and services provider Zip2 is mentioned as a strong possibility.) And some individual newspaper companies — including the Boston Globe, Times Mirror and Hollinger/Southam Newspapers in Canada — are pursuing a search/directory deal on their own or in concert with other newspapers. I’ll talk more about that in my next column.

(Part 2 of this column will be published on Monday, March 9.)

Dilbert’s boss at the Post?

The Washington Post earlier this week switched its new public Web news archive system from a free trial to a paid service. That’s great, but some Post staff members are miffed because they don’t get free access to the Web archive. One Post editor who works for the print edition, and who asked not to be identified, says he’s annoyed because on the Web he would have to pay a per-article fee ($1.50 or $2.95, depending on time of day) to download his own archived articles. He says that the Post staff had been led to believe for some time that they would get free access to the Post Web archives, only to learn the afternoon before archive charging began that this wouldn’t be the case. This editor comments that at the Post, “truth is stranger than Dilbert” (referring to the popular Scott Adams comics strip about workplace zaniness).

In the Post’s defense, its staffers do have free access to an existing internal archive system, called “Road Runner,” in which they can search for past Post articles. The Post’s Web archive is operated by a vendor, Mediastream, which is owned by newspaper chain Knight Ridder.

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company

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