New Century Network: The Next Step

By: Steve Outing

Last Sunday, New Century Network made a big splash with an announcement in New York just prior to the annual convention of the Newspaper Association of America. Hundreds of people packed the presentation room at the Waldorf Astoria to hear the latest on progress of the nine-newspaper-company cyberspace alliance. It's safe to say that many in the crowd mistakenly expected to be present at the launch of NCN. That wasn't the case.

Rather, Sunday's much-hyped announcement was meant primarily to introduce a permanent CEO, Lee deBoer, and offer up a few more details of NCN's grand vision for leveraging the full power of the U.S. newspaper industry to compete on the World Wide Web. The official launch of NCN won't be until early 1997 -- a long, long time in the fast-paced world of Internet publishing.

I caught up with deBoer earlier this week to quiz him about his plans for NCN. Currently, he's closing out his old consulting business, Media Futures Inc., and won't officially start with NCN until June 1. There's still no NCN office and no staff has been hired; that will have to wait a few more weeks. deBoer had just moved into a new temporary office in New York City and was, ironically, without email access for a few days.

Many industry observers (myself included) were surprised at the choice of deBoer. Nine of the largest newspaper companies in the U.S. selected to head their mission-critical cyberspace alliance an individual with no newspaper industry experience. In fact, deBoer comes out of the pay-cable industry, having been executive vice president of Home Box Office (HBO) and president of HBO International, and before that working with Cinemax and the Comedy Channel.

Does the background of the 43-year-old cable executive portend a subscription model for NCN? "I wouldn't read into my appointment that NCN is going to be based on a subscription model," deBoer says. It will start as a primarily advertising-supported service, but down the road it could become more of a mix of free ad-supported content and surcharged premium content. "This is not a situation where a subscription person was recruited because they (the NCN board) had any strategic reason" for doing so, he says.

While many observers had hoped that Sunday's announcement would fully define the business model of NCN, in fact that is still months away. The nine founding newspaper companies (Advance Publications, Cox Newspapers, Gannett, Hearst, Knight-Ridder, New York Times Co., Times-Mirror, Tribune Co. and The Washington Post Co.) have each had a senior executive on the NCN board, meeting for the last 12 months to define an NCN strategy. The blueprint they have come up with is significantly different than what it was when they announced NCN one year ago -- due to shifts in the Internet marketplace.

But with deBoer's appointment, more changes are in store. He says the board has given him leeway to adjust and modify what has been worked out prior to his arrival. "I'm lucky enough not to have a totally blank page," he says. The flip side of that, however, is that it means there's still much work to be done before NCN is ready to launch; there's still much to be done to refine the final business model. And no technology partners have been selected yet, so deBoer will have to make decisions on key alliances with third parties. (The NCN board did send out RFPs (requests for proposals) last year, but then refocused its efforts on content issues rather than technical ones.)

(The core strategy, of course, remains intact: To leverage the collective power of the newspaper industry on the Web, by aggregating newspaper content and making the local market the focal point. The company's slogan sums it up nicely: "The Net With a Hometown Point-of-View." For a discussion of NCN's core strategy -- as it stands today -- go to the NCN Web site and click on "About NCN.")

Asked about the delays in getting NCN to launch (the target launch date of early 1997 will be more than a year and a half from when NCN was first announced), deBoer concedes the need to act quickly, "but I don't think we've missed the boat." The time frame he's most concerned about is two to three years from now, when online usage levels are many times today's and the true potential of Internet mania is fully unleashed. "That's our time frame," he says. "The newspaper industry is ready to compete (on the Internet). NCN will be the newspaper industry's response."

He thinks there still may be an industry shake-out ahead, with lesser players falling away. Established brand names have an obvious advantage in making it through this period.

NCN will not be a large company, deBoer says; he expects to hire a staff of fewer than 50, and hiring will be one of deBoer's first tasks come June. Much of the work for NCN done up until now has been produced by "SWAT teams" inside the founding newspaper companies. deBoer says that no decision has been made about continuing to keep those people involved. It's possible that some of those who produced the preliminary work could be invited to join the NCN staff.

NCN was founded by daily newspaper companies and initially will be limited to daily U.S. newspapers. deBoer says he hasn't made up his mind about expanding the scope of the affiliate base to other publications. "We'll look at that," he says. It also is likely to expand beyond U.S. borders before too long.

During the next few months, deBoer and his to-be-hired staff will continue to develop the NCN prototype (an early incarnation of which is on the Web site today) and listen to affiliates' and potential affiliates' feedback on the model.

He may hear some skepticism that NCN can pull off its plans. In speaking with newspaper new media executives around the U.S., I frequently hear concerns that NCN's nine-owner structure will make it difficult for the company to act quickly enough to respond to the frenetic pace of the Internet business. That would appear to be borne out in the fact that it took the NCN board 12 months to name a permanent CEO to replace interim chief executive Peter Winter (who remains as a board member). Yes, "it's a tough job," says deBoer, "but that's fine."

Infinet: Your "Cool Site" is not cool with us

Lots of organizations of the World Wide Web have "Cool Site of the Day/Week" sections highlighting outstanding Web sites. It's a little-known fact that InfiNet, a national Internet provider owned by Knight-Ridder, Gannett and Landmark Communications, holds a service mark on "Cool Site" and many of its variations. InfiNet now wants everyone to know.

The legal staff of the Norfolk, Virginia-based company currently is sending out "friendly" letters asking publishers to stop using permutations of "Cool Site" online. Says Chris Kouba, director of the InfiNet Consulting Group, "Many folks don't realize it's service-marked, and we certainly want to maintain good relations with folks on the Web and in the industry."

InfiNet's original "Cool Site of the Day" can be found at

Contact: Chris Kouba,

Best college online newspaper service

Congratulations to The Minnesota Daily Online, the Web service of the University of Minnesota's student newspaper, for being named the best North American collegiate online news service in a contest run by the College Press Service and Tribune Media Services. Minnesota Daily beat out about 50 other entrants in the contest, which was open to all college newspapers and radio stations in the U.S. and Canada. The award included a $1,000 prize.

Minnesota Daily Online has been on the Web since August 1995, is run by a part-time staff of three, has a daily readership of about 350 people and gets about 11,000 hits per day. It can be accessed on campus at computer labs and the main library, as well as by anyone using the Web.

American University in Washington, D.C., took the second place award with The Eagle's Web; placing third was the University of Kentucky in Lexington, with The Kentucky Kernal.

Contacts: Timothy Broeker, editor,
John Kluchka, online services coordinator,

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