News Media’s New Role As Both Medium And Messenger In A World Of Partnerships

Good Afternoon,

I usually get invited to conferences like this because I’m the newspaper guy digital people get a kick out of when I say the newspaper model is broken.

In the newspaper business you can be referred to as a digital “innovator” for just saying that, which, of course, is a bit like winning a tallest midget contest.

Clearly, we are not digital innovators in the newspaper business. But we are adapters.

And as most of the media world is finding out – we are also survivors.

Is the newspaper model broken? For print, as it currently exists? Yes, irretrievably. Read Clay Shirky or any of the many newspaper company Chapter 11 filings.

But are our core competencies in local news creation and local sales broken? No.

Is there a digital innovation as it relates to local content and sales we can’t adapt to? Again, no.
We literally close the loop on local in news and sales.

Coupled with the sheer scale of our local resources – almost always bigger than all of our local media competitors combined – we are finally, kicking and screaming, starting to adapt and change.

And we are slowly but surely starting to get this right. Even in print I might add as we discover new roles for the print platform alongside our digital efforts.

The University of London professor Celia Lury argues in her essay “The Brand as New Media Object” that brands themselves are platforms for content.

Professors Melissa Aronczyk and Devon Powers in their work “Blowing Up The Brand” argue further “the relationship between consumers and brands become less about the consumption of the product than about social relations, experiences and lifestyles such consumption enables.”

In an industry that has been hidebound to its production process – printing – but equally wedded to the belief that its brands stand for something, I think the professors’ arguments point to a way forward for newspaper companies as news companies.

Just as the printing press divorced the reader from the writer with the pen and created a whole new world of scalable audiences and techniques of communication, the new digital platforms demand journalists use each platform to its utmost advantage.

The first steps in this transition has been our Digital First strategy but clearly it is also a case of Digital Right – the right uses for the right platforms on the right occasions. And not just the simple re-purposing of content from one platform to another in order of priority.

Online stories today that do not link are now considered inferior by consumers. News companies, as brands, cheapen and destroy themselves if they do not allow the social interaction that society now demands of the new digital tool set.

Marshall McLuhan knew this when he said the Medium Is The Message.

In the news business, particularly a legacy business like newspapers, if we don’t understand this and take advantage of the Medium’s potential we will cease to be the Messenger.

And it is in this role of Messenger that we have tied up our ideas of brand values. Such as a Messenger the community can trust. A Messenger known for its accuracy, integrity, etc.

But what does it mean to be the Messenger in today’s new news ecology where the people we used to call the Audience are now equally participants, competitors, colleagues, arbiters and sources?

At Digital First Media – where we operate Media News Group and the Journal Register Company and their more than 800 products – we have started to answer that question by first unlocking our brands and sharing our content into this new eco-system for all to use. And where we, in turn, aggregate the Audience’s content, curated under our brands.

The Audience – at the Journal Register Company – has responded to this initiative by doubling in about a year.

(A small housekeeping note: Many of my references today will be about the Journal Register Company which we have now run for about two years whereas we just took over operations at Media News Group three months ago).

Extending Professor Lury’s argument that brands are platforms we have taken our initiative to unlock our brands and share our content one step further.

In Torrington, CT we have literally extended our brand, the Register Citizen, by using the newsroom itself as a platform.

At the Register Citizen we have established an Open-to-the-Public newsroom and all are welcome.

They are welcome to work at blogging stations set up right in the newsroom. They are welcome to use the community meeting rooms and they are welcome to attend the news meetings themselves. For those who can’t make it the news meetings are also live-streamed.

In Torrington we have tried to embody the basic values of the web – transparency, inclusiveness and interactivity.
Online fact-checking boxes on every story is our direct request for help to correct any mistakes we may have made. I believe this is an act of transparency that is bonding us closer to that community.

To be clear, we no longer see our job as the old-fashioned agenda-setter or gatekeepers of information for our communities. Clearly communities know what they want and can organize themselves around issues and activities. You may have heard of a little thing called Facebook.

What we can do, however, under the power of our brands, which are still trusted, is help organize relevant information out of the river of content now available in each community.

And as the community has become even a physical part of the newsroom we are building a better connection – a closing of the loop – with that community than we have ever had before.

In Torrington, the community has responded by driving the newspaper’s digital audience to more than five times its print audience and it has taken the Register Citizen from a loss to profitability.

Along with the Community Media Labs at all Journal Register Company dailies and which are now being rolled out at Media News Group, Torrington’s Open-to-the-Public newsroom is becoming a new model of community engagement that works and enhances the news organization’s brand value.

This is a brand value being built by the community itself as the community takes ownership in what the local news organization does and helps to establish its key values of community involvement.

The gate is forever open now. There is no longer a gatekeeper on community news. Communities will now value those institutions – like Twitter – that help the flow of news and those – like us – that add context and reflect the values the communities themselves set.

Adding value to the new free-flow of news requires a new news organization.

In New Haven, CT we have created what we believe is a local newsroom that adds value.

It has four key components: Breaking News; Investigative Reporting; Audience Engagement and Widgets.
Audience Engagement and Widgets are the new no-brainers. Newsrooms must share content and they must engage their audience as demanded through the new digital tools that are powering social media.

No social media connection. No news organization.

While the crowd can be as fast or even faster on breaking news, adding the context we have through our community connection and professional newsrooms is both vital and additive to brand value.

However, it is the re-establishment of an investigative reporting unit – a victim of cutbacks in local newsrooms a long time ago – which can add the greatest value. Finally, again, and using the new digital toolset, we are asking questions that others are not asking.

That virtuous circle is complete when the news organization’s engaged audience pick up those questions and demand answers.

From a business perspective we are getting closer to the Holy Grail of value alignment with our communities.

Trust me when I say all of this is easier to say than do and it takes a commitment from the entire organization. If you are not fully committed the community will know it in a heartbeat.

While local is key to everything we do our Project Thunderdome – pulling together the strength of our local footprint and adding best of breed non-local content on all platforms – is creating huge national opportunities.

By centralizing all non-local content creation and production we are able to reduce costs while putting more resources back into local coverage increasing what is already an important competitive advantage.

Our scale not just at Digital First Media but also industry wide is a force to be reckoned with if harnessed properly.

We are extending the opportunity in content of Local Focus and National Opportunity to our salesfloors.

We start with our competitive advantage – we have more salespeople in our markets than any other of competitors. In many, if not in most cases, more than our competitors combined.

And we are adding the power of advertising networks to that by partnering but in our case an advertising network powered not just by numbers but also by brand value. At Digital First Media we call this our AD Taxi program.
In partnering with the right data and tech partners and leveraging not just ours but the right audience partners we are able to extend buys across our network of 41 million unique visitors and our own paid print circulation audience which is the second highest in the nation at 3.2 million on Sundays.

Like the open newsroom concept, by opening up our inventory and sales resources and by partnering we are adding to our brand value by offering behavioral, geographical and audience-specific solutions through search and extended inventory across our network and beyond to advertisers.

In short we are:
– Selling premium inventory on brand-enhanced newspaper web sites that ad networks can’t buy.
– Packaging digital products into an integrated campaign with select partners for premium out-of-network inventory on multiple digital platforms such as email and mobile.
– Data mining our user behavior to create more effective digital buys

And, again, we are leveraging the largest local media sales forces in those markets to do it.

Key to our Digital First strategy is allocating resources appropriately to our digital future as opposed to our print past solely. With local digital advertising network growing nationally by 50% – along with the explosive growth rates of mobile and the continued upward climb of search – this effort is a big part of our future.

Culture change is key to any organization attempting to transform from what it was to what it needs to be.

At Digital First Media that change has been most evident in our newsrooms and content processes but it has also played a huge role in the sales process and how we go to market.

All digital start-ups talk about failing fast. In print we are masters at failing slow – the industry is in its 17th- straight year of paid circulation decline.

And it is true that print dollars are becoming digital dimes to which our response at Digital First Media has been – then start stacking the dimes.

All of that requires a big culture change. A change that requires an adoption of the Fail Fast mentality and the willingness to let the outside in and partner.

At the Journal Register Company – and now soon to be rolled at Media News Group – failing fast has been a key to driving success.

We are now launching about one new sales product each week. We source centrally and train and implement locally. Our local sales forces call it the The Firehose. An unending stream of products and ideas because in this transition no one knows what will work unless you try.

To fill that firehose requires partnering. And just like in yesterday’s newsroom the old-fashioned closed salesfloor didn’t partner very well. That’s now changed.

The results have meant that at the Journal Register Company those dimes have stacked up to 5 times more digital revenue in 2011 than 2009. And those dimes now more than pay for all of Journal Register’s newsrooms. This is a performance about to be repeated at Media News Group.

So where does this lead us?

If newspapers can change and become multi-platform news companies – and I think we and the industry have demonstrated that we can change.

And if newspapers can learn to partner with both the Audience and the right content, sales and audience development partners.

I would suggest to you it is time for the newspaper industry to move from the defensive and onto the offensive. Time to step forward into the fight for our markets.

Because we can change and we have learned to partner and we already have the scale – as does the rest of the newspaper industry – that just about every content and sales start up is looking for.

At Digital First Media compared to most start-ups in our field we are very much outpatching the likes of, well, Patch.

With 57 million customers each month on all platforms in hundreds upon hundreds of markets with our quality brands and the largest contingents of content and sales personnel we are driving $1.4 billion of total revenue. About $1 billion of that is in advertising and of that about $130 million is digital advertising.

And we are just getting started.

We know we can’t do this alone and we have learned the power of partnering – particularly with start-up pioneers like SeeClickFix and DailyMe – to drive our transformation from print to digital.

To that end we are launching in Q1 of next year Digital First Ventures

The new company will make investments in tech start-ups focused in the areas of content, advertising and audience development.

Partnering is vital to any media company’s growth whether it is an established media company or start-up. We are going to marry our considerable scale with start-up innovation to build success.

We’ll be releasing more details on this at a later date.

So, I put it to you, that in the newspaper industry, you now have an industry willing to change, attempting to change, experiencing some failures but also some successes.

And while the final form of that future success is yet to be revealed, I would not – with new partners’ help – count us out in getting there.

15 thoughts on “News Media’s New Role As Both Medium And Messenger In A World Of Partnerships

  1. Wow is right. I think you hit all the marks. And investing in innovation is all that’s still needed to keep the stove stoked and keep the steam pushing the turbines.

    I’m left wondering where the user marketplace (what was classifieds) will land. Is that something that is better handled by eBay and Craigslist or is there still room for it in the news business? Certainly not in its current format, but maybe with a partner or in some new iteration.

    That and the revenue/role that comes from inserts (FSIs). But I think that gets taken over by quality behavioral targeting and location based digital offerings

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  3. Dear Mr. Paton,

    This is a tremendous presentation. Digital First is blazing the trail for all news outlets and deserves high praise.

    Given how much I admire this work, I feel a bit sheepish saying anything that might be construed as criticism…but you need to find a better word than “audience.” You have already moved beyond the concept of audience anyway. It might be a useful exercise to come up with the right word, and help you to further define the relationship with your readers/constituents/participants. And yes, the word does not yet exist.

    PS – As may be evident from this comment, I don’t come out of the newspaper culture, but work in participatory media.

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  10. Nice to see the prospect of innovation happening to the news business and having it come out of the old newspaper realm. Where was this six years ago when I was Webmaster at the York Daily Record?

    I am still skeptical that the good salaries for people with technical skills can be had locally. At least from the content creation side of things. That’s why I left.

    You’ve mentioned open and free technologies previously. Is there anyone contributing to any of these from within your Digital First initiative?

    Has any thought been given to geographically distributed development of technology/software?

  11. John: I love what you are doing at DigitalFirst and it’s especially poignant reading this post on the eve of my last two days serving on Poynter’s advisory board. Your post embodies so much of what I describe as “open leadership” in my book by the same name, and I wish you and the company all the best. Please let me know if there’s anything I can do to help with your efforts.

    And as a former Mercury News employee and now a long-time Mercury News reader (print and online), I’m looking forward to greater engagement and transparency in my community!

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