Video-Hungry Newspapers Let Outsider Play Editor

Under-the-radar video platform NDN quietly exerting influence in news world

News Distribution Network isn’t a household name, but news consumers sure watch a lot of the videos the company distributes.

In fact, NDN broke the top 10 in comScore’s ranking of top online video properties in October, with an audience topping 53 million. It just signed a deal with CBS Local to distribute video from 13 local CBS stations including New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. And a handful of sites are now starting to let NDN remotely program video on their sites.

NDN has grown because online publishers can’t get enough video content (and the ad dollars that come with it). The company's selling point is that it provides the platform and video content and sells the advertising at no cost to its partner publishers—while giving content creators wider distribution for their video content. And NDN makes its bones by keeping the majority of the ad revenue, while giving publishers and content creators a cut. Among its 4,500 partners are the New York Post, New York Daily News, Los Angeles Times, and Forbes.

For a company that operates behind the scenes, NDN actually has a lot of star power behind it. Its investors include former Google CEO Eric Schmidt, and, oddly, the actor Bill Murray (who got involved because he has a mutual friend with NDN CEO and founder Greg Peters); and baseball Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson. Jane Pauley (Today, Dateline) is a board member.

NDN started out by distributing content from providers like AP, CBS News, Fox Sports, E! and the Weather Channel, but it’s since branched out to local TV content. Besides CBS, other local content providers are Tribune Broadcasting and Gray Television.

“We’re becoming a wider distribution arm,” said Kevin Gentzel, a former top Forbes sales exec who’s CRO of NDN. “The more partners we have in local content, the more markets we’re penetrating.”

And increasingly, NDN is not only supplying the video you see on publisher sites, but it’s placing it there itself. Forty or so publishers, including the N.Y. Daily News and St. Louis Post-Dispatch, have begun letting NDN remotely embed video content in stories, making NDN an extension of their newsroom in a sense.

The Daily News is one of the publishers testing the service. On Dec. 3, for example, NDN uploaded a Pix 11 video to go with a story about new evidence in the Trayvon Martin case. The Daily News decided to test it because people are much more likely to see video if it’s embedded in an article rather than ghettoized in a player in the right-hand rail, said Steve Lynas, svp of digital at the newspaper. Having NDN pair videos with articles also saves the paper’s editors a lot of time searching for videos that often don’t come in until hours after a text article’s been published, explained Lynas. 

Publishing third-party content is one thing; letting that party play an active role in selecting the content for your site is another, and one might ask if a publisher should cede such an important function.

Right now, NDN has humans matching videos to stories, and Lynas said the process is working for the Daily News. “It’s not by any stretch unvetted content,” Lynas said. “At the moment, it’s working well. But it’s not to scale.”

But as it gains scale, the process will become automated, Gentzel said. And as that happens, it’ll obviously be critical for NDN and publishers alike to monitor the process to avoid mishaps that a human being-driven process would likely prevent. But for many publishers hungry for the audiences and revenue online video promises, it may well be a risk they’re willing to take.