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April 7, 2009, 8:15 a.m.

A new fighting spirit, or a New Century Network?

There’s a feeling in the air this week.

Maybe it’s the news that newspaper publishers are having an off-the-record meeting to talk about revenue models. Maybe it’s the tone Dean Singleton set yesterday when he pledged to protect and license AP content, presumably from aggregators: “We can no longer stand by and watch others walk off with our work under misguided legal theories.” He later told PaidContent.org “The content is ours and we can do anything with it we choose to do with it. If it’s in our best interest to give it away, we will give it away. If it’s in the best interest to charge, we will charge.”

Maybe it’s the crashing business model that’s bringing truth to the trope about desperate times and measures. But there’s definitely a feeling that the news industry is struggling to its feet, dusting itself off and steeling for a fight.

I’m not exactly on-board with the strategy Singleton is telegraphing for the AP, but at least coming out of the Rope-A-Dope promises drama and, maybe, success. The key question is whether this new-found passion will lead to smart moves to grow audience and revenue, or simply drive a regression to the protectionist playbook. In other words, let’s just hope it doesn’t implode as badly as the last time the newspaper industry tried the whole cartel thing, with the New Century Network.

By the time New Century Network came my way at The Baltimore Sun in 1997, it was already a committee-designed horse, so I’ve always slotted it mentally under “Potentially Brilliant Idea, Horribly Executed.

But before the ill-fated idea to build NCN as a paid-system, in the model of an all-you-can-eat cable TV plan, before the internecine squabbling among newspaper CEOs, hell-bent on protecting print, there was a germ of an idea that might have made all the difference in the world: cooperate.

From BusinessWeek in 1998:

New Century had something even William H. Gates III coveted: the content of newspapers throughout the country. Affiliates could use Mardi Gras stories from the New Orleans Times Picayune or Hollywood news from the Los Angeles Times. Separate subject-oriented Web sites would pool stories on everything from health care to sports. And advertisers could run banners on one site or 100 with the push of a button.

Bill Gates gets the shout in that clip because NCN was created, in large part, in an effort to beat down the most dire threat of all to the newspaper industry: Microsoft Sidewalk.

In city after city, including San Francisco, Microsoft has wheeled out an expensive slickly-packaged Internet entertainment guide called Sidewalk, closely watched by nervous newspaper executives worried that the new Web sites would divert advertising dollars once earmarked exclusively for print.

To repeat: Microsoft’s Sidewalk. The ambitious network of city-centric sites that would change the way we used “cyberspace.” The inevitable juggernaut that would sweep away all competitors. The network that was absorbed in 1999 by Citysearch.

Neither Microsoft nor any other new on-line publisher is costing newspapers much in ad revenue yet, according to industry analyst John Morton.

Partly that’s because computers aren’t yet a mass medium like TV – only about 40 percent of U.S. households have a computer and not all of them are hooked up to the Internet, Morton noted.

But, Morton said, newspapers are reacting properly by putting themselves and their city guides on-line.

“You’ve got to have your hand in this because who knows. In two or three years there could be a helluva technological development that could put revenue at risk. (emphasis added)

*cough* Craigslist *cough* And it wasn’t even so much technological as just logical: Build tools for the new medium instead of porting over the old medium (print classifieds) to the new. The most important lesson of NCN is that your opponent may not, in fact, be who or what you think it is.

The other lesson that Singleton and the publishers seem to be taking to heart is courtesy of one Ben Franklin: “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” Or, in the words of everybody’s kindergarten teacher: cooperate.

Whether the current feistiness among publishers translates to smart moves or just a new, more modern bunker mentality for yet another new century remains to be seen. But one thing is almost certain: the game is about to change in a big way.

(Photo from PaidContent.org)

POSTED     April 7, 2009, 8:15 a.m.
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