A different direction

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“Media changes very fast these days, and nothing changes faster than digital,” read an April 2 blog from John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media (DFM), a national newspaper company whose core properties include 280 daily and weekly newspapers in 18 states, including Kingston’s Daily Freeman. “Make a change, then get set in your ways and become reluctant to make other changes and you get left behind.”

Paton blogged that the company had learned new skills and had a higher level of digital skills than it had before. But it was now time to change again. Its Project Thunderdome activities would “go in a different direction.”

The Salt Lake Tribune, a Pulitzer-Prize-winning daily newspaper owned by DFM, provided a more incisive if less diplomatic version of the story. “The Salt Lake Tribune’s top editor said Wednesday the newspaper was preparing for sizable budget cuts after its corporate owner killed a digital initiative once considered central to an evolving business strategy,” reporter Tony Semered wrote. Project Thunderdome, “launched in late 2011 to centralize key parts of national news gathering and production,” was being eliminated in a larger quest to trim more than $100 million in company costs.

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“Thunderdome, with its 45-member editorial staff, had been a centerpiece of DFM’s digital strategy, conceived as a way to tap DFM’s national reach to offer newspapers in its chain in-depth and attractive reportage in news, sports and features with strong multimedia components that single publications could not produce on their own,” Semered continued. Paton was confident that locally available skills, now much improved, could be expected to generate their own data journalism, video production and web content.

Finally, Semered reported “renewed speculation” that Alden Capital Group, DFM’s major stockholder, “might be preparing to sell newspaper properties.”

Ken Doctor of Nieman Journalism Lab similarly theorized that Alden Global, a vulture fund that has a record of quickly dumping investments that haven’t worked, was signaling its “fatigue” with DFM and was readying its newspaper properties for sale. Doctor thought the papers might be sold in regional clusters rather than to a single buyer.

 

Small community dailies in danger

As an ironic reflection of how much our media universe had changed, within 24 hours such varied observers as Nieman, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, Politico, Mashable, Gawker, the Columbia Journalism Review and the Washington Post had all chipped in their two cents’ worth. Rick Edmonds at Poynter gauged that Paton’s explanation “barely hints at the converging economic troubles.”

As Doctor correctly pointed out, creating common digital content for all properties within a national newspaper chain is not a new idea. Thunderdome’s unique thrust was in its development of corporate working relationships with what newspaper people call non-traditional news sources. How quickly will the local DFM papers, struggling to retain their already overburdened heritage franchises, now be able to pick up the role of technological transformation previously led by Thunderdome?

We are well into a period in which local media are experimenting with content services that global entities provide. Some of these “partnerships” work. Others don’t. From everybody’s point of view, it is essential for survival’s sake to find and engage in those that work.

Newspaper organizations in the larger cities have the best chance to make the pivot between a print and a multi-platform identity. (Would Kingston’s Freeman have the available resources to devote to these tools?) Absent aggressive buy-in to Paton’s tenets, those dailies in smaller communities seem at greater risk of falling behind.

Some degree of moral backbone has long been a requirement in the newspaper business. Would the local Daily Freeman have had the resources to match the rigorous and unvarnished coverage of its own parent company in which the Salt Lake Tribune was willing to invest? Of course not. But it didn’t reprint its sister paper’s work, either.

 

Cultural constraints

In his 2002 “The Rise of the Creative Class,” urban studies theorist Richard Florida reflected upon the built-in conflict between organization and creativity. Both qualities were important, he wrote, and the two oft-antithetical principles needed to work together. But the organizational ethos frequently suppresses the creative instinct, contended Florida, citing such predecessors as William H. Whyte (The Organization Man) and Jane Jacobs (The Death and Life of Great American Cities). The unhindered spirit of large organization is by its nature culturally constraining.

It’s hard to find a more culturally constrained organization than a small daily newspaper under remote ownership and constant budgetary stress. Exhortation alone is unlikely to alter its cultural perspective.

John Paton stated it as obvious that DFM’s papers will continue to be “the news and information leader” in the markets it serves. With the success of both digital and non-traditional competitors to daily newspapers in recent years, it may be time to revisit that core belief.

According to the Columbia Journalism Review, DFM’s strategy is to “take out about $60 million annually in expenses of about $1.15 billion in total costs, while reinvesting in its digital business, investing eventually expected to add $100 million to company expenses.”

A cut of about five per cent might not seem overly onerous if it did not follow a long series of such cuts small and large. DFM revenues have been continuing their now-established diminution at the pace of five per cent per year.

“No one seems to have found the formula on how to do local in a quality and profitable way,” continues the journalism magazine. That may be true. But lots of people seem to have found the formula for doing local in a way that lacks quality and profit.

 

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