Can AP Step In to Fill Some Holes Left by NCN?

By: Steve Outing

With the most visible U.S. newspaper cooperative cyberspace venture, New Century Network, fallen, publishers are looking to other umbrella organizations to help them succeed online. A logical place to look is The Associated Press, so last week I checked in with the member-owned wire service’s new media chief for an update about its plans in a post-NCN world.

Jim Kennedy, The AP’s director of multimedia services who oversees a staff of about 50 stationed in New York City, says that the failure of NCN doesn’t have a great impact on his department, though it might consider picking up some of the initiatives that NCN had started. “Our mission is to be a content provider for our membership online” and help drive traffic to AP members’ sites, he says, not to become a tools provider to newspaper Web operations (as was part of NCN’s mission).

NCN did play a small role with The AP, helping sell some national advertising for AP’s “The Wire” Web service, which newspapers purchase and incorporate their branding into a pre-packaged national Web wire service feature. (That program split AP-generated national ad revenue with publishers who subscribe to The Wire.) Kennedy still wants to pursue national Web ads (even though this has caused some controversy among AP members.)

News search role?

One program for which NCN will be missed by publishers is the Newsworks news search engine, which gave newspaper Web sites a feature that allowed their users to search for recent news across 144 U.S. newspapers. Kennedy says The AP definitely is looking at the possibility of creating a multi-news-site news search engine, though probably not using the same mechanism as NCN’s Newsworks. “If we do it, it will not be a hit or miss thing,” he says; what The AP can bring to such a project is the ability to serve up content from its entire membership. (Considering The AP’s international membership, if it pulls something like this off, it could easily outdo what NCN accomplished.)

The Wire is considered as The AP’s foundation product online, and priority is on enhancing and building from that. Version 2.0 of The Wire was released just over a week ago, and it makes some changes demanded by the 210 newspaper customers who subscribe to The Wire. Member branding has been moved to the top of the screen in the dominant position; whereas before The Wire very much looked like a product of The AP with a local newspaper logo slapped on, now the publisher gets more play. Also, a news summary at the top of the service now contains brief synopses of the top 10 stories of the hour. And the site contains more navigation aids throughout all of its pages, to make the user experience more pleasant.

Next up for The Wire will be the development of content modules that can be plugged in to news sites that don’t want the full The Wire package. Kennedy says that Business, Sports and State/Regional News are the areas being focused on first. Related to this goal, Kennedy’s multimedia crew is working on making the raw material of the service — text feeds, photos, graphics, audio and video — available in easily packagable form for your Web site. If a news site wants to package AP content about the Monica Lewinsky story now, Kennedy says, it can be done but not without some difficulty, so the goal is to make it easier to pluck the components you need from the AP server in a form amenable to online packaging. This is a long-term project, and members shouldn’t expect anything soon, but “we’re working on it,” he says.

Another likely project is an HTML e-mail service that would take AP news summaries from The Wire and deliver them to news consumers. While local news sites using the service would be able to incorporate their own local headlines into the e-mail deliveries, Kennedy doesn’t envision providing an HTML e-mail toolkit in the way NCN did with its recently introduced e-mail service.

On a more abstract basis, Kennedy views NCN’s failed search/directory strategy (detailed in this column recently) as covering an area worth AP exploring. “We’re always interested in exploring new ways to move traffic to the membership,” Kennedy says, but he has nothing specific to talk about at this time.

Priorities

Kennedy says that his department’s priorities for 1998 will be: First, to enhance The Wire’s Business, Sports and State/Regional News components; second, to add an archive feature that will give users a two-year searchable archive of AP content (paid for by the consumer); and then to work on the plug-in content concept, special sections and HTML e-mail service.

The trouble with The AP, of course, is that it answers to its members — who happen to be its owners (in the U.S., at least). “We go where our members want us to go,” Kennedy says. For that reason, The AP’s progress on the multimedia front is slower than it could be if it was free to act as it saw fit. The AP, it can be argued, is as hobbled in some respects as was NCN, which ultimately failed because its nine owners couldn’t agree on a business strategy.

Kennedy says that a special committee of the AP board of directors has been formed to steer the multimedia division through this year, and an ad hoc committee of members is being formed to help Kennedy and his staff to set their priorities. Some direct consumer research is also planned.

AP’s multimedia department has added 35 people since 1996. That number work on The Wire and associated future development, while another 15 continue to support the AP Online wire service, a wire feed designed for use by online services. About two-thirds of the staff is editorial, the rest in technical roles. For now, everything Internet about AP is centralized in Manhattan, but Kennedy says some decentralization is possible as The AP explores introducing AP multimedia to international markets.

Contact: Jim Kennedy, [email protected]

NCN e-mail service gets second life

The chief architect of New Century Network’s HTML e-mail news delivery service, which was to be provided to NCN affiliate news sites, will live on. Vin Crosbie, president of Digital Deliverance of Greenwich, Connecticut, and the lead outside consultant on the NCN e-mail project, says his firm will provide development services for such a project for interested publishers. Crosbie developed the business plan for, represented and acted as outside general contractor for NCN’s HTML e-mail project.

Crosbie says his firm already is under contract with one of NCN’s former owners and to PR Newswire to develop HTML e-mail services. Crosbie has allied with Jo Ann Mandinach of Need to Know on the project. Mandinach was director of affiliate relations at NCN until it was shut down early last week.

Contacts: Vin Crosbie, [email protected]
Jo Ann Mandinach, [email protected]

News search engine offer

Hoping to capitalize on the demise of New Century Network’s “Newsworks” news search engine service, the developer of an independent news-site-search engine is seeking to create relationships with publishers. NewsIndex founder Sean Peck says he is offering to help former NCN affiliate Web sites by “waiving most of the one-time set-up fees” normally charged for licensing a co-branded version of his product, which allows free consumer searches of several hundred news Web sites around the world.

Contact: Sean Peck, [email protected]

More CitySearch newspaper deals

CitySearch, a provider of online city guide services, last week added three major U.S. newspapers to its list of partners. New relationships with the Baltimore Sun, Dallas Morning News, and San Diego Union-Tribune will establish online city guides in those cities. The deals are similar to CitySearch relationships with the Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, in which the newspapers license CitySearch technology to create the city guide components of their Web sites.

In addition to these newspaper partnerships, CitySearch also operates its own sites in some markets.

Steve Archive of columns
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 [email protected]

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

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