Hello again from Zurich, after day 2 of the Interactive Publishing conference. I'm devoting several days' columns to coverage of this important meeting of interactive publishers. In addition to my coverage here, don't forget that next week you can hear "tapes" of most of the conference presentations over the Internet. (You'll need the RealAudio player to hear them.) Links to the audio files and a link to retrieve the RealAudio application will be available on the Editor & Publisher Interactive home page.
In Thursday's sessions, Esther Dyson, president of EDventure Holdings, shook up some preconceived notions about the value of content on the Internet and looked ahead to what the Internet environment of 2-3 years hence will look like. There's so much information available for free on the Internet that it's going to become increasingly difficult for publishers to make money charging for content, she said. "Why should people pay for it?"
Interactivity will be absolutely critical to succeeding online, Dyson suggested, because people will not keep coming back to an online service unless they are actively involved. Online forums and live chat areas are central to America Online's phenomenal growth, she pointed out (plus a huge investment in marketing).
What's required, rather than providing nifty content, is building "attention capital." That means, in her view, building a community that people feel they are a part of. While content may be the initial draw, it's online customers interacting with each other that will get them hooked on regularly visiting your online site.
This can be expensive to maintain, of course, in that the publisher will need to staff the online forums with "virtual bartenders," who monitor and facilitate content, but do not control it. In fact, the concept about online models that makes many publishers nervous, Dyson said, is exactly the loss of control that is required to succeed in new media.
She suggested that running a publication online service is analogous to running a restaurant. It's not the raw content -- the meat, potatoes and lettuce -- that's of value to its customers. Rather, they are paying for the ambiance, location, the impeccable service and how the chef has assembled the raw ingredients. Online publication service providers face a similar challenge in selling their service. After all, they are trying to attract the attention of online users. "Information consumes attention, and it's attention that's in short supply," she said.
While many publishers operating online today are making a large portion of their revenues from subscriber fees, Dyson sees advertising as the dominant source in the next few years. But she expanded the traditional view of what is "advertising." Sun's Java programming language is advertising for Sun Microsystems, she pointed out. And online publishers can sell individuals space to create their own Web pages; this is "advertising" for the individual.
New Century Network's vision
Peter Winter, interim CEO of New Century Network, gave a preliminary glimpse of the U.S. alliance of 9 major newspaper companies that is creating an infrastructure for American newspapers to cooperate and share content and advertising on the World Wide Web. NCN is interesting because it taps the collective power of the U.S. newspaper industry, which has not been accomplished before.
NCN is not a consortium, Winter emphasized, but rather an organization committed to helping newspapers profit from their brand names in cyberspace. Computer users will not subscribe to an NCN service, but rather to their "trusted, local newspaper" (an NCN member). From this "home base" they will travel to content services of other newspapers around the U.S. and other national content developed by NCN itself.
NCN is an "interactive content development and distribution company," Winter said. It will create added-value content to be shared by all NCN member newspapers, and aggregate content from various members. An example of the latter might be a central NCN travel page, bringing together some of the best travel journalism and resources (databases, discussion forums, etc.) in one nicely packaged site.
He repeatedly emphasized the local aspects of the service. "We will build local audiences attractive to advertisers, which will drive local profits." Client newspapers will be able to offer to their customers bundled access and content, he said.
An important component of NCN is facilitating newspapers getting online, which is the first phase of NCN's construction. NCN is developing technical requirements to be shared by its members, but NCN members will adhere to the open standards of the Internet. (NCN members will all be on the Web.) It will build common user registration and billing facilities on top of the Internet, and it is building its own private backbone.
NCN is looking to sign up a lot of newspapers, and is expected to launch with a good showing (possibly between 50 and 100) of publications from within the 9 newspaper chains' operations -- and possibly a handful of independent publishers.
NCN is being created to aggregate enough eyeballs to have some serious clout in attracting content providers, which any U.S. newspaper, no matter how big, cannot do alone, Winter said. And "it's all about" the newspaper's name being pre-eminent -- something many of the commercial online services cannot offer in their partnership deals.
Winter indicated that a series of major announcements about NCN's development should be forthcoming in late December, including the naming of a permanent chief executive officer, announcement of where the company will be headquartered, and final selection of third-party technology partners.
I'll report on other presentations from this conference next week.
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