Knight-Ridder Concocts a National Brand: 'Real Cities'

By: Steve Outing

Much has been written about online city guide companies such as CitySearch, Digital City, Microsoft Sidewalk, USWest Dive-In and others creating networks on the Web. The model is in part designed to tap not only local advertising at the local site level, but also to give national advertisers a way to localize their messages as they are presented to multiple local sites within a larger national network.

But wait a minute, say executives with Knight-Ridder (KRI), one of the largest U.S. newspaper chains. With our more than 30 news Web sites and a stable of online niche services (auto and home-buying services, local entertainment guides, "yellow pages" directories), we've been creating a network all along -- and doing it longer than you other guys.

Yet, to the outside world -- and especially to advertisers -- KRI's Web network is not as visible or well known. "The world doesn't seem to be aware of it," admits Knight-Ridder New Media president Bob Ingle. It's lacked the brand recognition of a Digital City or a Sidewalk. So, Ingle's San Jose, California-based New Media division is formally introducing on Monday the "Real Cities Network," which is designed to put a visible national consumer brand on top of KRI's Web network and fight off the cyber upstarts.

Online-print national buy

The principal advantage that Real Cities will have over the online city guide competitors, according to KRI executives, is that advertisers are able to make ad buys in print and online across the network of 32 KRI Web sites and the company's U.S. newspapers. The company has been doing that, informally, but the Real Cities program puts together pre-packaged buys across the network, where before deals were created on a case by case basis. "No one else can offer that," says Knight-Ridder New Media managing editor Mark Weinberg.

Real Cities has a national sales force based in San Jose, headed by K-R New Media director of sales Mark Thomas. It will be selling ads into the network, giving advertisers contextual, national or regional buys into KRI's media properties -- online and print.

As of Monday, KRI Web sites all will start carrying the Real Cities Network affiliation displayed prominently at the top of each home page. Unlike how KRI sites treat New Century Network affiliation -- with a small logo, typically at the bottom of the home page -- Real Cities will be played up big.

In effect, Real Cities is creating a new national consumer brand name (like "Sidewalk" or "Digital City") because the company hasn't effectively created one till now. Many of its individual papers -- the Miami Herald, San Jose Mercury News, Philadelphia Inquirer, etc. -- are nationally recognized and respected. But the name Knight-Ridder, while of course well known in the media business, is not exactly a consumer household word. Knight-Ridder will be identified in the Real Cities branding, which will raise its profile, but Real Cities is the name meant to stick in people's heads.

Weinberg speaks confidently about the concept, which he believes will raise the company's profile as creator of a network of Web communities instead of a mish-mash of individual newspaper sites. Consumers in KRI's local markets understand that the company represents quality, trustworthy journalism, he says, and that's the competitive advantage that he hopes to play up as the company's sites go up against the likes of Sidewalk and others.

Ingle, an outspoken critic of Microsoft who has taken the software giant to task for its executives' statements that Sidewalk is not competitive to newspapers, says that Real Cities "is not in response to anything else that anyone else is doing." Rather, it is a "reaffirmation" of what KRI newspapers have been doing for many years -- serving their communities.

But Ingle is critical of the new wave of online city guide competitors, believing that those "who come in wanting to skim the cream off the top" can't prevail because they lack credibility in the community. "No other competitor has the kinds of decades-long relationships in the local community that we have," he says. "That fact defines us."

Both Ingle and Weinberg emphasize the concept of credibility; they believe it's what ultimately will insure that they prevail over the likes of Sidewalk. Ingle points to the movie and restaurant reviews in the online city guides. Who's writing them, and how can we trust the writers' credibility? he says.

As Weinberg sees it, the upstarts can't create a city "newspaper," but are rather building guidebooks that encroach into the area of journalism. "They're not in the news business," Weinberg says, "and they're struggling to find good writing and to gain credibility. ... (But they) cannot buy credibility; they cannot buy integrity."

The NCN connection

While KRI will more aggressively seek national advertising for its 32 Web sites via the Real Cities initiative, the company also continues its relationship with New Century Network (NCN), which has its own national advertising network which places ads in 130 U.S. newspapers. KRI is one of the founding members of NCN, having initially ponied up $1 million to get that newspaper industry online venture off the ground two years ago.

NCN vice president of advertising Tom Bates says the Real Cities initiative "complements" NCN's own ad network. "To the extent that they can get more national ads, that's a good thing," he says. Bates sees NCN as a "super network" that sits above newspaper company efforts like Real Cities. Many national advertisers prefer to buy into multi-site geographic or content-specific campaigns, and will not bother buying into sites of a specific company. On the other hand, Real Cities is a different animal in that it can be used for a combination of print and Web ad placements.

What Real Cities does do is complicate things a bit. A national advertiser who makes a placement into many newspapers via an NCN campaign and also places in Real Cities theoretically could end up in some of the same sites twice. Bates says that means NCN and Real Cities need to communicate well and coordinate their respective campaigns.

KRI's Ingle says he too sees NCN and Real Cities as complementary ad network initiatives, and professes to remain committed to NCN. NCN "is still a notion with considerable power and potential," he says, "but I do think the time window is getting shorter on NCN. ... (But the Real Cities announcement) is not intended to send any kind of message about NCN."

Ingle expresses some frustration at the slow start NCN had in gearing up to generate national ad sales, but says that after some earlier delays caused by implementing ad software, things seem to be picking up and KRI sites are getting some national Web ads from NCN.

Houston's got charisma

Following my last column about San Francisco Sidewalk (Microsoft's Bay Area online city guide), I heard from the general manager of Houston Sidewalk, Chris Hearne. "I think we've got personality to burn," he says.

I hadn't seen Houston's entry when I wrote my last column (because the site just launched Wednesday), but after taking a look, I'll agree. Where San Francisco Sidewalk (in my view) is a bit too sterile and doesn't emphasize the human personalities involved in the project, Houston Sidewalk seems to take a different approach. Major event recommendation features emphasize the writers ("Alison Cook on Restaurants"; "Eric Gerber on City Life"). In fact, the top writers for the site are listed as "Columnists" on the home page.

Dare I say it, Houston Sidewalk is taking a more "newspaper-like" approach than some of the other Sidewalk units.

Disclosure: I have relationships with three of the companies mentioned in today's column. Knight-Ridder and New Century Network are corporate sponsors of the media-related online discussion forums I run. Also, my research and consulting company has in years past conducted research on behalf of Microsoft. I of course do not let such relationships impact my reporting, but I think that readers should be aware of this and form their own conclusions.


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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

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


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