Portions of this column were originally written for the April 2014 edition of News Photographer Magazine.
Mark Loundy is a media producer and consultant based in San Jose, California. Full bio.
The opinions in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily represent the official views of the National Press Photographers Association.
May 2014, Volume 128
By Mark Loundy
"Tradition is what you resort to when you don't have the time or the money to do it right."
There was a clock ticking on Digital First Media when its CEO John Paton took the reins of the newly formed company. Paton was a veteran of three corporate bankruptcies at the Journal Register Company and was determined to implement his now-famous "Digital First" management philosophy on a large scale.
DFM was formed out of the restructuring of the JRC properties and it also managed the Denver-based newspaper chain, Media News Group.
A subsequent bankruptcy merged the former JRC with Media News under the Digital First Media name and formed one of the largest newspaper companies in the country. It also gave Paton some breathing room to implement his strategy. He could only hope that he could show results to the company's owners before they lost patience and sold-off the company in pieces.
Paton thought that his strategy of giving priority to digital media would reverse the slide of DFM's newspaper properties and transform them into the profitable media companies of the future. To help execute his strategy, he brought in Jim Brady as editor-in-chief. Brady was a veteran of the Washington Post's online operation, AOL and of the DC-based digital news operation, TBD, which was defunded by its broadcast-company owners soon after it was launched and before it could prove its value.
DFM's owners were two so-called "distress debt" firms — companies that are not patient about their investments. Paton had to know that he didn't have much time to deliver. After his experience with TBD, Brady also knew that time was a luxury when the people who write the checks only care about quick profit.
Brady and DFM's Digital Transformation Editor, Steve Buttry, another TBD refugee, lost no time in visiting every property in the company; Buttry became a travelling "digital university" educating the far-flung staffs about digital newsgathering techniques, audience engagement philosophies and ways to manage a modern newsroom.
Brady created a central hub for non-local content called Project Thunderdome. The idea was that Thunderdome would allow the local DFM papers to redirect resources to local coverage. The New York City-based Thunderdome also housed a journalistic SWAT team that could supplement local staffs on major stories. It also employed digital tool builders who worked on, among other things, resources for managing data-driven news stories.
The money for all of it came largely from print-based advertising. Print was still a cash cow, albeit a much smaller one than in past decades and digital revenue had not replaced the diminishing income from print. Plus, it is massively expensive to produce a print product. The digital business model had still not been proven and Paton was desperately trying to find the right combination.
The radical solution of killing print and forcing advertisers to come to digital was something that had to be proven before being adopted as a general business model and, although DFM internally considered which of its properties might be a suitable test bed, no serious moves were made to go "digital only."
On the day after April Fool's Day, 2014, the news broke that DFM would kill project Thunderdome. Some of its functions would be taken over by the various DFM papers, but most would be discontinued and its staff, including Brady and Buttry, would scatter to other employment. There were reports that the parent company was shopping its newspaper properties around. Alden Global Capital had run out of patience and wanted to cash out.
Digital First Media, the industry innovator, was dead. It was killed by lack of money and by insufficient time.
Many of Steve Buttry's techniques and management approaches will be taken up by other organizations via his generous online blogging. He posted nearly all of his training materials, and more, on his personal blog. Some of Project Thunderdome's code was published as open-source for all to use. There is no doubt that DFM advanced the state of the journalism art.
Print is going away. It is in hospice and it's only coming out feet first. Although bargaining is one of the famous five stages of grief, neither the market nor society are interested in a deal.
Then Good, The Bad & The Ugly will return next month. Please let me know of any particularly good, bad or ugly dealings that you have had with clients recently. I will use the client's name, but I won't use your name if you don't want me to. Anonymous submissions will not be considered. Please include contact information for yourself and for the client.
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