Whither New Century Network?

By: Steve Outing

If you've ever tried to herd a group of nine cats, you might appreciate the task that Peter Winter appears to be faced with in getting New Century Network (NCN) off the ground. As interim CEO, he is in charge of getting the nine major newspaper companies involved in the newspaper Web project to agree on a business plan that they all can live with. That's got to be one of the toughest jobs in the media business, and might explain why NCN is still not on the launching pad and still without a permanent CEO.

NCN will enable local newspapers to share content on the World Wide Web and access news, information and advertising to help them develop online services in their local markets. It will develop premium national content services, establish common technical standards for all its member newspapers and coordinate billing for the online services. The joint venture was formed by Advance Publications, Cox Newspapers, Gannett, The Hearst Corporation, Knight-Ridder, The New York Times Company, The Times Mirror Company, the Tribune Company and The Washington Post, which each placed $1 million in the kitty when NCN was formed last April. NCN is currently headed by Winter, who is vice president of market development at Cox.

It's nearly one year later, and where's NCN? On its way, and a major announcement revealing all is scheduled for April 30 at the Newspaper Association of America's publishers meeting, according to Winter. The interim CEO continues to travel the country touting NCN at industry conferences, but he has been short on details.

I began picking up rumors recently that the New York Times Company might not renew its commitment to NCN. (The Times was the last company to join the venture.) Will NCN launch with all its original members aboard?

James Cutie, president of the New York Times Information Services Company and an NCN board member, told me last week that the Times remains committed to NCN and will renew its interest in the venture. The signals that I was picking up (from several sources within the Times organization), Cutie says, probably allude to the "lively" meetings of the NCN board as they try to develop a business plan acceptable to all parties. Not all the companies involved are in agreement on all details of the final strategy, and it continues to evolve.

Cutie says that the disagreements over strategy are not about individual companies arguing for their vested interests. "We're working hard as a group to figure out what to do and how to do it," he says, describing the process as "healthy, constructive debate." The discussions have evolved past technology and distribution to content and customer issues, he says.

Winter, when asked recently about possible defections, would say only, "I'm pushing all the partners very, very hard" to come to agreement on a final business model. The new deadline is April 30, so Winter has 2 more months to corral his herd of cats. The NCN board meets next Tuesday where some of the final sticking points are expected to be finalized in preparation for the late-April announcements.

One potential sticking point is the lack of a permanent CEO; an executive search committee has yet to announce a deal, though reportedly an appointment is close. While the board may come to an agreement on strategy, a new permanent CEO is likely to want to imprint his or her own ideas into the business model -- which might be another hurdle to cross before NCN is off and running.

Cutie of the New York Times says that the permanent CEO is likely to want to change some of the details, but the premise as designed up till now will remain intact. NCN is designed as a company, with a strong CEO, rather than as an association with an executive director who must please all the board members. "I'm on a number of other boards, and I think this will work out pretty well," he says.

It's not known what Winter's role in NCN will be once a permanent CEO is found, and he has not been available in the last few days to answer that question. Last November, Winter indicated to me that he isn't being considered to be its chief executive.

NCN's initial budget of $9 million is still far from spent, but at some point the partners may be asked to pony up more money. The joint venture agreement allows any partner to decline to sink more funds into the project or contribute less than the others, but its voting share would of course be reduced in accordance with the other partners' higher contributions.

NCN is a significant cyberspace development for the newspaper industry as it grapples with competition for online viewers from everyone from TV stations to Microsoft to Netscape to AT&T. Industry-wide cooperation is a must if newspaper content is to be a driving force in cyberspace, yet formal cooperation is not a familiar concept to U.S. newspapers. Winter will need to make use of his persuasive powers and New Zealand charm to bring the 9 NCN partners together to pull this off.

(Other NCN board members include David D. Hiller, senior vice president/development, Tribune; Chip Perry, vice president of new business development of the Los Angeles Times, representing Times Mirror; Bob Ingle, vice president/new media, Knight-Ridder; Jay Smith, president, Cox Newspapers; Michael Newhouse, general manager of The Times, Trenton, representing Advance; Ralph S. Terkowitz, vice president, technology, Washington Post; John Palm, vice president of new media, Gannett; and Alfred Sykes president of Hearst New Media.)

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This column is written by Steve Outing and underwritten by Editor & Publisher magazine. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at outings@netcom.com


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