Newest Newspaper Ad Network Attempt Raises Same Old Questions

The newspaper industry is starting to look like the boy who cried “network.” In the latest addition to a string of ad network related reports over the past couple years, Gannett Co., Hearst Corporation, Tribune Company, and The New York Times Company have launched a network dubbed quadrantOne. The goal, as it always has been, is to grab more national ad dollars from large brands.

In light of ongoing print revenue losses and previous stalled or failed attempts to create a network encompassing most local newspaper sites, quadrantOne Interim CEO Dana Hayes stressed the new entity’s “well-funded startup” status, and hinted at more non-owner partners to come.

The network has been in talks with “dozens and dozens” of potential publishers that might sign on in the next several weeks to add inventory, including Media News Group and Cox Newspapers, said Hayes. Currently, about 170 big and small market newspaper and local TV sites covering 27 of the top 30 markets are included, representing about 50 million unique visitors in December, according to quadrantOne. Larger markets in the network include LA, Chicago, San Francisco, and Houston, while local TV sites cover cities such as Philadelphia, Seattle, and others.

Two national paper sites are missing from quadrant’s equation: NYTimes.com and Gannett’s USAToday.com. “Strategically, this is about the aggregation of local; those two don’t fit across the ownership group,” said Hayes. However, Tribune’s LATimes.com, a national paper site, is in the network. Boston Globe site Boston.com is the biggest remaining offering from The New York Times Company, which also has included a handful of small sites including Sarasota Herald Tribune and Lexington, North Carolina’s The Dispatch Online.

Seventeen people are on board to sell CPM-based standard and rich media ads to national advertisers. Some handling ad sales out of New York, LA and Chicago are on the national sales teams at owner firms, including Hayes, also SVP Sales for Tribune Interactive, and Donna Stokley, SVP Sales for QuadrantOne and a top Tribune Interactive sales exec. “It’s important for us to staff this with people that really know what they’re doing,” Hayes said, noting the network is hiring additional sales staff.

Ads can be targeted geographically, behaviorally and demographically, and the network is offering standard reporting across markets as well as centralized ad avail requests. “The goal is to attract new advertisers that have avoided local or not jumped into lots of local because it was fragmented,” Hayes said.

The company is partnering with a technology firm to run the network, though it hasn’t named which one, resulting in speculation from industry watchers. Some believe quadrantOne is running on a large ad network platform, which is a logical conclusion. Others have wondered whether the technology behind local ad buying and management firm Centro is behind it, but that’s not the case. However, Hayes did tell ClickZ News quadrantOne and Centro had discussed a possible partnership, but concluded, “Centro buys and quadrantOne sells.”

Still, Centro could end up being a buyer of quadrantOne inventory, essentially buying low and selling high to national advertisers it works with.

Greg Sterling, local media industry analyst and founding principal of Sterling Market Intelligence agreed, “Centro could well be a partner or buyer of inventory.” But he cautioned, “I also see this as a challenge to Centro.”

If quadrantOne, set to be operational by April, does actually tack on more publisher partners and manages to attract enough inventory and national ad dollars to achieve critical mass, it could be a threat to firms like Centro, as well as McClatchy Interactive’s Real Cities network.

“The real loser here is probably McClatchy and Real Cities, unless the latter joins and folds its inventory into quadrantOne,” suggested Sterling.

Still, there’s no telling how this new network will fare, considering past attempts by paper publishers to form Web network alliances in order to counteract plummeting print ad revenues. It was just about a year ago when a network project from Gannett, McClatchy, and Tribune made front page news. Mere months earlier, Yahoo announced its consortium of newspaper partners, among which Hearst is a founding member. Later McClatchy joined the Yahoo fold. Eventually, Yahoo aims to sell and manage national ads on those paper sites in its quest to become a dominant ad network in its own right.

Later when reports surfaced of Gannett, Tribune, Hearst, Media News Group, and Cox working together to create a network — seemingly morphing the original Gannett, McClatchy, and Tribune combo — some believed it made sense for firms already aligned with Yahoo, like Hearst, Media News Group and Cox, to hedge their bets with Yahoo, and do it publicly.

Now, there’s even more uncertainty regarding Yahoo’s future as Microsoft presses its takeover bid. The growing group of Yahoo partners are concerned about Yahoo’s future and the future of the consortium, “but they also realize they’re largely spectators at this point,” said Ken Doctor, newspaper industry pundit and lead news analyst at media market research firm Outsell.

The biggest threat to newspaper publishers, besides time, may be “piecemeal, fragmentary deals,” said Doctor. “Now they’re running out of capital… It’s the failure to do things in a single unified way that is really holding them back.”

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