Nostalgia for the New Century Network

Last week I heard someone refer to "NCN nostalgia." Just before the dot-boom, a bunch of newspaper companies got together and imagined an online future in which newspapers would be key players through something called New Century Network, which would be the definitive news resource on the Internet.

It all fell apart amid corporate bickering, and the inability of big media companies to cooperate was rightly blamed. But there was something else at work: technology was evolving faster than anyone's business vision.

I remember seeing one of the early NCN definitions in the form of a request for proposals to provide infrastructure for the network. The idea was for a federation of closed, paid-access websites, where you could navigate from site to site on a single membership pass. This was in the early days of Infinet, when newspaper companies thought they could have a sustainable business selling dialup Internet access.

By the time the RFP made it through the fax machine (yes, it was faxed) the idea was obsolete. Switch gears: Open portal. Switch gears: search engine. Switch gears: ad network. None of it worked and some players were left angry and bitter.

Enough time has passed that NCN nostalgia is at hand. And it surfaces in Jon Fine's Business Week column for next week. The idea of "Search Engines as Leeches on the Web" is a powerful one. But the way people use technology continues to evolve at a breathtaking pace. The notion that a we-tell-you news cartel would be relevant in a conversational universe may already be obsolete.

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Maybe I'm wrong, but this seems like another futile attempt by big media to re-define the internet to meet their needs rather than redefining themselves. It worked pretty good for hundreds of years when every town had one paper and little else to provide perspective on events both great and small. That effectiveness, however, has been waning of late as competition between information sources has increased. The leaders of newspapers continue to dither about how to build a Great Wall around their domain, while the "huns" are busy taking over.

Newspapers still have key strengths including a unique relationship with readers and advertisers. But most don't seem to have a clue how to parlay that into a viable business in a world where they aren't the only players on the information field.

In some ways they make me think of Dennis Hopper in George Romero's "Land of the Dead." The industry leaders are talking about how to shore up the already breached defenses while trying to sneak bags of money out the back.

I really liked that NCN search engine, though.

Actually, what I am experiencing is what Jesse Berst called prestalgia back at (I think) Connections '99 -- "a wistful longing for something that hasn't happened yet," in this case a group of like-minded companies focused on customers in support of a mutually beneficial model of interaction.

Prestalgia! One of my favorite words.