NewsWorks Redux? Knight Ridder Joins Classified Ventures

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By: Steve Outing

When the U.S. newspaper cyberspace consortium New Century Network (NCN) died earlier this year, one of the services that expired with it was NewsWorks, a multi-newspaper Web site aggregated news service and news search engine. Other than a newspaper Web advertising network, NewsWorks was the only full-blown service being offered by NCN.

There’s a possibility that NewsWorks could live again, though there are some major obstacles. NCN’s assets currently are being liquidated, and the NewsWorks search engine is the most salable item on the block.

NCN’s former chief financial officer, Bart Morrison, is staying on as liquidating trustee in order to collect its outstanding receivables, pay bills, sell what he can, and otherwise tend to all the details of shutting the doors for good. Three other employees, Greg Marro, Joe Rau and Vicki Jackson, continue to handle collections, payroll, human resources issues, etc. At its peak, NCN employed more than 70 people.

Enhanced NAA role

The most likely purchaser of the NewsWorks search engine is the Newspaper Association of America (NAA), which is in negotiations with Morrison. NAA already has on its Web site a directory to all its member U.S. daily newspapers — designed primarily as a resource to the industry — and plans are in the works to create a public-oriented Web site that would drive traffic to member newspapers’ Web sites. The addition of the NewsWorks news search engine, which would allow Web users to find news on a specific topic across many newspaper sites, would put NAA in the role of filling NCN’s shoes.

According to NAA vice president of new media Randy Bennett, this is anything but a done deal. There’s of course the issue of how much the industry association can afford. But a bigger roadblock is that Newsworks was built on a core search engine licensed from Infoseek, with NCN staff adding enhancements to that technology to create the news-specific Newsworks service. Bennett says he is talking with Infoseek about questions over the assignability of the Infoseek license to NCN. The original NCN contract with Infoseek contained a non-transferability clause. NAA would have to buy the enhancements from NCN as well as license the core search engine from Infoseek.

“We would like to keep the fine work that NCN did with the NewsWorks search engine with the industry,” says Bennett.

There’s also a technical issue, since the NewsWorks technology is designed for a high-end Sun server only. And Bennett says that NAA must consider the manpower requirements for running such a service.

Other than the NAA, Morrison also has gotten some interest in the NewsWorks technology from one of the original NCN founders.

Morrison says that other projects in the NCN stable were primarily in the proof-of-concept or early beta stages when NCN’s owners pulled the plug. NCN’s last announcement was for an HTML e-mail service that was to be used by its affiliate newspaper sites, but that system also was in a development and testing phase. Oftentimes in such cases, it’s more difficult and expensive for other software developers to figure out the coding that’s been done already and go on, than to just start from scratch with the same concept in mind. Morrison says that in the case of the HTML e-mail service, NCN owns the technology, but it’s not a patentable process and other companies will probably create similar services on their own.

No takers

Morrison says that the original liquidation plan included selling off the entire NCN operation with all the technology that it had developed. That was offered to each of NCN’s nine founding companies, but none was interested so as liquidating trustee Morrison is faced with trying to sell off the pieces. He says that if all of the nine companies expressed interest in a particular piece of software, he’d simply give each a copy; if only one or two wants it, he’ll sell it then redistribute the proceeds among the nine founders.

In its three-year lifespan, NCN went through an estimated $27 million of its owners’ cash. The original founders were Advance Publications, Cox Newspapers, Gannett Co., Hearst Corp., Knight Ridder, The New York Times Co., Times-Mirror, Tribune Co., and The Washington Post Co.

NCN’s CEO was Lee deBoer, a former cable television executive. deBoer says he is just this month starting a search for his next career move, and hopes to stay involved in the Internet business.

Contact: Bart Morrison, bmorrison@promail.com

Knight Ridder joins Classified Ventures

Newspaper chain Knight Ridder, only days after saying it will move its headquarters from Florida to California’s Silicon Valley, yesterday announced that it has joined Classified Ventures (CV), the online classifieds consortium founded by Times-Mirror, the Tribune Co. and The Washington Post Co. With the addition of Knight Ridder’s 31 papers, CV now represents 42 newspapers’ Web sites. The founding companies also own, between them, 15 magazines, 22 TV stations and 4 radio stations (all in the U.S.).

Knight Ridder brings to the deal the core database technology which will be used by CV, which was developed by Knight Ridder in conjunction with Object Design Inc. A little bit of brand-swapping will take place with this deal, with Knight Ridder’s existing HomeHunter real estate Web service being used across all the CV sites present and future. Ten HomeHunter sites have been developed to date for Knight Ridder’s Web properties. The newspaper chain will use CV’s auto and apartment services — cars.com and apartments.com. Knight Ridder already had developed 13 CarHunter services for its newspapers.

CV is not developing an employment Web service, per se. Newspaper-owned CareerPath.com is the industry’s primary national Web jobs play, and CV’s founders collectively own 64% of that venture. Knight Ridder also has a JobHunter Web service, but the company is keeping that to itself.

Knight Ridder new media president Bob Ingle says CV will be offering other non-investing newspapers the ability to be in an affiliate relationship and offer a co-branded version of the CV classifieds category sites. More announcements about those deals are expected in the next couple weeks. Ingle says that CV will provide a fully packaged service to newspaper Web site, which can run on a publisher’s own servers to ensure proper local branding.

CV, of course, is going up against the well-funded “category killer” Web classifieds sites that have emerged as Internet powerhouses in the last year or two — including services like Microsoft’s CarPoint; Rent.net; Classifieds2000; etc. Ingle makes much of the newspaper companies’ ability to create locally focused, regularly updated editorial content to wrap around CV’s entries to this competitive marketplace. “I think this will set us apart from the others” who will not have the resources or ability to gather that kind of local information, he says.

The first joint sites are expected to be ready to go in a couple months. Cars.com (www.cars.com) is close to launch. HomeHunter already has been deployed by Knight Ridder, but additional e-commerce features are expected to be deployed soon, according to Knight Ridder vice president of new business development Kathy Yates.

The CV sites will have a variety of revenue streams, says Yates, including national and local banner ads; e-commerce features; and “multi -media microsite” capabilities to allow auto dealers and Realtors to set up Web specialty sites featuring their inventories.

CV is currently based in Chicago, Ill., headed by acting CEO Tim Landon. The consortium, which employs around 100 people on the project, is currently engaged in a search for a permanent CEO.

Then, there’s Infinet

Sometimes, all the joint deals in the online news business have my head swimming. On the same day that Knight Ridder joined Classified Ventures, I received a press release from InfiNet, the newspaper-owned Internet service provider and Internet tools provider, boasting that 61 InfiNet newspaper affiliates delivered 1.2 million classified liner ads in a 7-day period using InfiNet’s Classifieds Online product. Knight Ridder, which has its own Web classifieds services and is now part of Classified Ventures, also owns one-third of InfiNet (along with Gannett and Landmark Communications).

Whew! No one can say that the Internet environment isn’t a complex place.

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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