Can’t we all get along?

Mickey Kaus describes a nightmare I lived through called the New Century Network.

Mickey suggests that newspapers follow a cable model and all get together and charge something for their content. I think that model won’t work and is all about trying too hard to remember what it was like when people paid you five cents for your papers. But that’s another discussion.

BB (before the bubble), nine of the largest newspaper companies decided to form a consortium-clubby thing called New Century Network to battle against the threat of Microsoft (what threat?). I thought that would have been a good idea if it has just been an ad network to get national dollars into local sites. But the members layered on ambitions like cream filling in a napoleon. They imagined — and I do mean imagined — elaborate schemes to create shared content templates and to build a kind of EU for membership.

It failed for one simple reason: The newspaper companies couldn’t get along. Newspapers all think they’re special (say that word in the inflection of SNL’s Church Lady).

Way back in time, my children, I was involved in bringing computers into newsrooms. My first was at the Tribune in 1974. The paper’s second system was an over-customized disaster so expensively horrendous that management dispatched its own Pulitzer-winning task force of investigative reporters to dig into why, creating a great read in how newspaper committees could not manage technology (among other things). The bottom line was that they neglected to give the system enough memory to operate or enough backup to operate safely because they wanted to spend their money on lots of special (say it that way again) features.

You see, the problem was that every newspaper thinks it’s different even though it’s not. They all hooked their graphs and put on their pants the same way, one at a time, but they all refused to admit that. They thought they’d each reinvented reporting and editing; working in geographic and monopolistic isolation probably fostered that way of thinking. So they each had to have their own special computer system. That continued in newspapers and magazines until the Mac came along (and I revolted at Time Inc. and, thanks to my brilliant wife [which, by the way, explains why we have brilliant kids], we produced Entertainment Weekly entirely on Macs, avoiding the odious corporate computer department and its system and more than $1 million a year in fees).

Newspapers also think they each reinvented the business of newspapers. That’s why they couldn’t make NCN work despite the best efforts of the staff. After it collapsed, a few of them banded together for various classified endeavors. But they all missed the trains roaring down the track getting ready to wreck them.

Who could have imagined that Google and Craigslist would be the real threats? Well, they should have.

And so, today, newspapers don’t have that national ad network and don’t have shared registration and don’t have a classified strategy and are saddled with their big, expensive presses and staffs while nimbler competitors fly right over them.

Now back to Mickey: Even before he ends his post, he wisely decides that maybe it’s not such a great idea to try to get newspapers together to charge for their content. He has been one of the most eloquent, along with Jay Rosen, criticizing TimesSelect (and I will admit that I read the columnists there less now that I know I can’t link to them). That’s why Mickey suggested that maybe getting everybody together to charge would be better (but he quickly sees the problems: you can’t charge enough so that, after sharing the take, it’s even worth the effort, not to mention the marketing expense… and besides, there are lots of nimble competitors zooming over who can tell you the news).

So he ends with just one suggestion: Can’t we at least have shared, one-time registration for all these damned local newspaper sites that each have to ask you the same questions to irritate you so you tell the same lies? I suggested that a dozen times, Mickey. I tried to get NCN to do just that. And when the AP wonders how it should help newspapers in their hour of need, I suggest that. Never happened.

You see, newspapers can’t get along. They think they’re special.