Here's our theory: Daily deadlines did in the newspaper industry. The pressure of getting to press, the long-practiced art of doom-and-gloom headline writing, the flinchiness of easily spooked editors all made it impossible for ink-stained wretches to look farther into the future than the next edition. Speaking of doom and gloom: Online ad revenues at several major newspaper chains actually dropped last quarter. The surprise there is that they ever managed to rise. The newspaper industry has a devastating history of letting the future of media slip from its grasp. Where to start? Perhaps 1995, when several newspaper chains put $9 million into a consortium called New Century Network. "The granddaddy of fuckups," as one suitably crotchety industry veteran tells us, folded in 1998. Or you can go further back, to '80s adventures in videotext. But each tale ends the same way: A promising start, shuttered amid fear, uncertainty, and doubt.
In 1983, Knight Ridder and AT&T joined to launch videotext service Viewtron. Anybody with a dedicated terminal, phone line, and $12 a month could access news from the Miami Herald and the New York Times, online shopping, banking and food delivery, via a 300-baud modem. Norman Morrison, one of the subsidiary's VPs, said: "We're at the beginning of home information technology. We are dancing naked on the stage of history." Knight Ridder recorded a loss of $16 million on the project in 1984. Viewtron claimed as many as 3,100 subscribers before Knight Ridder folded the service in 1986. An impressive number considering all that equipment cost between $600 and $900. Bet it would've been more popular if it'd had porn.
In 1995, Knight-Ridder, Tribune, Times Mirror, Advance Publications, Cox Enterprises, Gannett, Hearst, Washington Post, and the New York Times each contributed $1 million to create New Century Networks in 1995. None of them actually wanted any part of it. The opening paragraphs of BusinessWeek's 1998 article on the fiasco best captures the mood.
It was created with a name most of its owners disliked, with a logo one partner ''hated,'' in a city everybody rejected, with a mission nobody understood. So it was fitting that when New Century Network was kicked off last April by nine media giants teaming up to conquer electronic competition, even the launch party bombed. In a ballroom at the Newspaper Association of America convention in Chicago, a thousand bottles of champagne emblazoned with ''New Century Network: The Collective Intelligence of America's Newspapers'' awaited the hordes expected to come to toast the watershed new-media joint venture. When fewer than 100 people showed up, Chief Executive Lee de Boer made an abbreviated speech before retreating.
The papers sunk $25 million more into New Century Networks before it folded in 1998, laying off 40. Perhaps it was for the best, says a disgruntled vet: "Even had New Century worked, it still would have been something like Google News and that's not exactly the best business ever." Which is funny because Google claims Google News indirectly generates $100 million a year for the company and doesn't crow about it much. These guys? It would've been more naked dancing on stages and things.
After participating in New Century Networks, the now defunct newspaper publisher Knight-Ridder launched Real Cities in September 1999, intending it to be a network of local portals featuring "news, email, search services, e-commerce, and site-building tools," according to PC World. In an article titled "Knight Ridder and New Media: If You Can't Beat 'Em...," Richard Siklos, then at BusinessWeek, wrote
Analysts applaud Knight Ridder's strategy, but some wonder if its network of local sites will ever gel, and they figure Real Cities will someday have to be merged into a bigger entity.
Knight Ridder ignored the pessimists and committed to investing $25 million in its new online business. "I live in terror that some big thing's going to happen that I don't see coming," Knight Ridder New Media President Bob Ingle told BusinessWeek. What Ingle didn't envision: nothing happening. Users didn't flock to Knight Ridder's localized portals. They start their Internets on AOL or Yahoo in Des Moines and by clicking into the Google search box everywhere else. Knight Ridder was eventually sold to McClatchy for $4.5 billion in 2006. Last week, McClatchy sold Real Cities to Centro, a local-media buying agency, for an undisclosed — read: embarrassingly low — amount. Maybe just enough to cover this year's wages?
Before there was Yahoo Answers, where users post questions for other users, there was a similar service from the New York Times called Abuzz, which the Gray Lady acquired in 1999 for a modest-by-bubble-standards $30 million. In January 2001, the Times shuttered the service and laid off 70 staffers, citing an "unexpected slackening of advertising revenue." That was the service's only failure, says a person familiar with the project:
They shut it down after the bubble burst, even though they could have kept growing it, for just the cost of the servers. The Times was always nervous about quality. It was user-generated content, not high-quality editorial and this was before they got down in the dirt with About.com. If they had just left it alone, it would have been ENORMOUS by now
Even when you can't sell adds on ENORMOUS, it's still good. Google News doesn't serve ads. Maybe Abuzz could have referred traffic to NYTimes.com like Google News does to Google. Google calls that trick $100 million. You know what the newspaper's call revenue gimmicks like that? They can't remember.
Founded in 1997 and still operating today, Classified Ventures operates Cars.com, Homescape, Apartments.com, RentalHomesPlus, and HomeGain. It's owned by McClatchy, Belo, Gannett, Tribune and the Washington Post, and is probably the newspaper industry's most successful online venture. That's not saying much. On December 30, 2007, part-owner McClatchy told the SEC its 25.6 percent stake in Classified Ventures was worth $99.3 million. In a filing last week, McClatchy said its stake was now worth $86.5 million — a 13 percent drop in half a year. Craigslist, eBay's Kijiji, and even Facebook allow their users to list cars, apartments, and other goods for sale for free, threatening the paid-classifieds business online and in print. Oh, and Yahoo's Newspaper Consortium? Don't get us started. Or do. (Photo by DRB62)