Real Cities Seeks to Fill NCN Ad Network Void

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By: Steve Outing

With the demise of New Century Network earlier this week, newspaper executives have been scrambling to create new alliances that might fill the void. Moving quickly is Knight Ridder, which has announced an alliance with a Web advertising services company to turn its “Real Cities” Web network brand into a replacement for NCN’s now-defunct national newspaper Web site banner ad network.

The Real Cities Network was created last October as a new cyberspace brand name for Knight Ridder’s 32 newspapers in 28 U.S. markets. It was designed to build recognition of the company’s news properties as a national network and bring in national advertising for a combination of print and online. Real Cities was viewed by some as competitive with NCN’s newspaper Web ad network. Knight Ridder was one of NCN’s nine owners.

The “agreement in principal” announced this week is between Knight Ridder/Real Cities and New York-based Real Media, an Internet advertising solutions company backed by Swiss media conglomerate PubliGroupe and which had a relationship with NCN’s ad network until that effort was folded — and continues to maintain the existing Web ad campaigns from NCN. (The two enterprises have no common ownership links; the use of “Real” in both names is conveniently coincidental.) Real Media will serve as the exclusive sales arm for Real Cities online sales. Knight Ridder also will do sales of its own into its own properties for combination print-online buys for multiple markets that it serves.

According to Bob Ingle, president of Knight Ridder New Media, “our phone has been ringing off the hook” since Monday’s announcement about NCN shutting down, with non-Knight Ridder newspapers interested in joining the Real Cities online ad network. Taking advantage of the situation, Ingle says that Real Cities is now being opened up to other newspapers, though primarily in major metro markets.

Big is where the money is

The focal point of the Real Cities network will be newspapers in the 20 largest U.S. metro areas. Real Media will be selling Web banner ads into the Real Cities network members’ sites with an estimated staff of between 15 and 20 people, according to Real Media president Dave Morgan.

Ingle says that a focus on just the top markets is imperative to the network’s success, and failure to do so was a mistake made by NCN. Both Ingle and Morgan say that the national advertising community has been adamant in its desire to place ads only in the top 20 or so markets. The reality, both executives say, is that at this time, there’s not much demand by national advertisers for ad space on newspaper sites in smaller markets.

Morgan says that for the NCN Web ad network, advertisers weren’t buying ads much deeper than at newspaper sites that covered the top 10 U.S. markets — which explains why many significant newspapers weren’t seeing much income from the NCN ad network initiative. “We’d love to place advertising 100 markets deep, but they’re not buying it,” he says. “And we’d go broke trying to sell it.” Real Media, which was founded in 1995, started out focusing on the medium-sized newspaper Web site market — selling ads into multiple sites that cover markets 50 to 150. But advertisers didn’t show much interest and the company switched its strategy. “We were three or four years too early,” says Morgan.

Smaller papers remain important, Ingle says, but for now “it’s a question of priorities.” And Morgan points out, “It won’t work with the smaller properties until it works with the bigger ones. Our vision and our roots have been with smaller properties. But the national market is not buying them — not in print and not online.”

Mindful of how this might play with publishers in the not-top-20 markets, the two companies are drafting a plan for a second-tier Real Cities relationship with smaller newspapers, which will serve advertisers who need to make regional Web ad buys. At this writing, such a strategy hadn’t been nailed down but was in the works.

(It would behoove Knight Ridder to find a Real Cities online role for smaller-market newspaper Web sites. Only about a half dozen of the U.S. markets that Knight Ridder serves are in the top 20. To serve the top 20, Real Cities must attract other major newspaper companies to join in.)

Hedging his bets

That Knight Ridder set up a Web ad network several months ago that competed with NCN’s ad network was largely a result of Ingle’s view of NCN. Although he was Knight Ridder’s representative on the NCN board of directors, Ingle says “my own outlook on NCN has been fairly pessimistic for some time.” He dates that thinking to a year to a year and a half ago.

Setting up the Real Cities initiative “did not in my view undercut NCN,” Ingle says. “I sincerely hoped that NCN would hang together.” Rather, Knight Ridder foresaw the need to have an alternative to NCN and to wrap a national brand around its various initiatives — including a series of Web verticals covering housing (HomeHunter), jobs (JobHunter), autos (CarHunter), and entertainment (JustGo), which are integrated into Web sites throughout the Knight Ridder Internet empire.

Ingle says it was only 9-12 months ago that he first gave much thought to the idea of national branding; previously Knight Ridder focused on promoting its brands at the local level. “Collectively, (newspaper industry executives) have been total ignoramuses about branding. … It just wasn’t top of mind in this industry until recently.” Internet success has two critical components, local and national branding, he says, and Real Cities is his company’s attempt to make up for the lack of focus on the latter.

Of course, NCN was doing some national branding with its initiatives, most notably its NewsWorks newspaper news aggregation site and multi-newspaper news search engine. But Ingle says that “was not a good user experience.” NewsWorks was killed because the NCN board determined that it was serving as competition to 144 affiliate local newspaper brands more than it was helping them.

NCN, which costs its nine media company owners an estimated $27 million, had other initiatives besides its ad network, including a strategy that was being developed to create a newspaper Web search/directory service for use by newspaper sites. “You haven’t seen the last of that search engine strategy,” Ingle says, hinting that this is an area that Real Cities will explore further with other companies.

The pace of discussions and deal-making among newspaper industry players in the first few days after NCN’s death has been “unbelievable,” Ingle comments. While the industry may have spent $27 million, “by god, we learned a lot in the process” which will be applied in the coming months and years. That $27 million investment? “That’s a goddamn rounding error” for the nine companies that funded NCN, Ingle says.

Java banner: ‘Ads disguised as content’

This is a neat idea. TotalNews, the tiny Arizona company best known for the controversy created by its news aggregation Web site’s former use of frames (which resulted in legal action by major news publishers), has announced a nifty new Java ad banner technology.

It’s called the “Headline Ad Solution,” and is a compact (10K) Java-based news style “ticker” that is designed to broadcast headlines, titles or page descriptions across a Web banner ad. As an example of its use, the New York Times might create an ad for itself that included rotating headlines from its Web site — with the headlines being pulled from the current line-up of news (not just some static rotation of headlines). The ticker can contain buttons or tabs for different sections, so the Times in this example might be able to showcase a series of rotating headlines from its various sections — news, sports, business, etc. Each of the headlines as they rotate through link to that piece of content, so it’s not just a scrolling headline service that links to the sponsor site’s main page.

This is a nice progression of the boring old Web banner ad, in which the ad becomes interactive.

TotalNews president Roman Godzich says that his company is offering use of the Java ad banners in several forms:
Free use on your Web site, with the banner content fed from TotalNews’ servers and no customization available. Customized version of the Java ad banner, served from TotalNews; for an (as yet unannounced) flat fee plus monthly charge. This option includes your branding and design, but news rotation is from other news sites as served up by TotalNews. Customized version of banner, fed by your own headline content picked up from your Web site. This option might be used to create banners that you would place on other sites to promote your Web news content. Pricing has not been announced. The technology also can be licensed for a high-end flat fee, for a publisher to do with it what they like. At this time, not all Web sites accept Java banner ads, which is something to keep in mind. Godzich estimates that about one-third of Web sites can deal with Java banners, though that is growing all the time.

Contact: Roman Godzich, rgodzich@totalnews.com

Laid off NCN talent — how to find them

A group of talented new media professionals found themselves out of work when New Century Network was shut down by its owners early this week. NCN has created a Web page that includes electronic resumes of its former employees. The resumes can be found at http://www.newcentury.net/resumes/.

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 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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