Opinion: Media Mangle

The reality sinks in for newspaper executives

No old-school newspaper type folks will solve their problems

My last position at The Herald-Sun of Durham was Director of Digital Publishing. I fell into the web side of things in 1996 when we developed an award-winning voter/election site, VoteBook, which won the first-ever Newspaper Association of America Digital Edge Award for Public Service.

The digital team at The Herald-Sun, basically four or five people at that time, was looked upon suspiciously by the dead-tree types. Other than upper management, who saw the importance of digital, many thought we were wasting time and resources. When our news website was unveiled and began winning awards, some became converts, but not many.

Along the way we did some noteworthy things, like becoming the first paper in North Carolina actually to have a blog site when we created The Weather Blog during a particularly nasty ice storm, and used it for subsequent bad weather events. We also were the first paper in North Carolina to offer blogs sites to all local and state candidates, for which we got some national publicity.

We also did some ground-breaking things with photography and Flash, winning several national awards for features created by photographer Joe Weiss. We also created 360-degree virtual tours of all the major sports venues in the Triangle, which included a feature that showed you what the view would be like from each section.

We had other innovations in mind when, in January 2005 Paxton Media of Paducah, Ky., bought The Herald-Sun. I had moved on from managing editor in 2001 to the new position of director of digital publishing, not a good career move in the Paxton chain, I found out. Spending money for online offerings was not in the Paxton game plan. I and others who were pushing digital at The Herald-Sun were shown the door on the same day the ownership of the paper changed hands. Needless to say, the web offering of The Herald-Sun has suffered greatly.

I thought about that today when I read this from John Paton, CEO of the Journal Register group of newspapers:

Stop listening to newspaper people. We have had nearly 15 years to figure out the Web and as an industry we newspaper people are no good at it. No good at it at all. Want to get good at it? Then stop listening to the newspaper people and start listening to the rest of the world. And, I would point out, as we have done at JRC – put the Digital people in charge – of everything.

Since about 2005 newspapers have spent millions of dollars, gathered in hundreds of conferences, and hired thousands of consultants to try to figure out what to do in this new environment. Even back then I realized that all of the poobahs were simply newspaper consultants trying to find a way to defeat the internet, not join or embrace it.

Newspaper people have always been fond of telling readers that the job of a newspaper is to expose problems, no matter how unpleasant, in the hopes that this knowledge would allow policy makers to address those problems. Unfortunately, newspaper people never took their own advice, at least where the Internet is concerned. Paton’s approach is refreshing, and rare, because he is a newspaper executive who sees the reality.

Paton is also a businessman. And, like a good businessman, he knows that you can’t waste resources on unproductive areas and products:

We are getting out of anything that does not fall into our core competencies of content creation and the selling of our audience to advertisers. Get rid of the bricks and iron [and] focus on core competencies — meaning, get rid of those things that don’t add value to the business. Reduce it or stop it. Outsource it or sell it.

Lawmakers in Raleigh and Washington could learn a lot if they just took that paragraph to heart.

There’s still a lot of wheel-spinning as newspapers try to figure out how to survive. Even in Paton’s organization some of the ideas have the potential of being unproductive time-wasters:

Earlier this year, Paton launched a project called ideaLab, in which employees from across the company were chosen from an open application process that generated almost 200 comments on Paton’s blog (his post about the lab is here). Armed with their choice of mobile phone, a netbook and iPad, members of the ideaLab get 10 hours of paid time per week to experiment and innovate — and only one rule, Paton said: There are no rules, and no sacred cows.

And this one:

In addition to the advertising growth, Paton says his papers are reaching out to the communities they serve, to make them part of what he calls the “new news ecosystem.” For one paper, the Register Citizen in Connecticut, that means creating a new community newsroom, which the newspaper is moving into later this month — the new offices have no walls, Paton says, and feature “a newsroom café with free public Wi-Fi, a community media lab and a community journalism school.”

I predict that the ideaLab will become a place for goofing off, and the “new news ecosystem” will not evolve into the utopian community news space that he foresees. Still, Paton’s contribution to newspaper survival is his understanding that old-school newspaper people can’t solve the industry’s problems.

Jon Ham is vice president of the John Locke Foundation and publisher of its newspaper, Carolina Journal.