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What bankruptcy means for Journal Register Company newsrooms

6 Sep

First of all, let me couch this by saying that I’m speaking only for myself, and that I continue to appreciate the fact I work for a company that allows and encourages employees to think for themselves, speak their minds and debate company strategy in public view. That makes us stronger and helps us avoid mistakes that can be made in an insular culture.

Journal Register Company, which owns the New Haven Register, Middletown Press and Register Citizen, filed for bankruptcy on Thursday in an effort to shed “legacy obligations” that include significant debt, pension liabilities and expensive long-term leases on buildings we no longer use.

What does this mean for the newsrooms that I lead as editor of JRC’s newspapers in Connecticut?

Bottom line: It’s a big, pain-in-the-ass distraction in the short-term – due to misunderstanding about what bankruptcy means and why we’re doing it – but a huge long-term benefit that aims to keep our local news operations in business for years to come.

Twitter, Facebook and comments on Jim Romenesko’s blog about the media industry (my original post referred only to “Jim Romenesko’s blog” … I meant comments, not that Jim had written anything inaccurate) were full yesterday with misconceptions about this announcement. Let me tackle a few of them:

Myth #1 – Journal Register is filing for bankruptcy because a “digital first” approach hasn’t worked.

JRC’s print advertising revenue has declined at almost exactly the same rate as the rest of the newspaper industry over the past two years, while its digital advertising grew much faster than the rest of the industry. Through its focus on the web, video and mobile, the company did a better job than the rest of the industry in replacing print losses with digital growth. It remains very profitable on an operating basis. The issue is not results compared to the rest of the industry, but the big structural issues of a business that committed to major debt, lease obligations and a pension system that was based on a much bigger company built on a print advertising base that doesn’t exist anymore. There are numerous other newspaper companies faced with the same – or worse – issues. Some of them could take the same step JRC took yesterday at any time. I expect some will sooner rather than later. I feel a lot better about the strength of JRC after this process than I would working at a company that hasn’t confronted the pension time bomb and debt, or a company whose ownership situation is still in doubt. (For example, Tribune, which owns the Hartford Courant, is still in bankruptcy, four years and $231 million on bankruptcy lawyer fees after filing.)

Myth #2 – Journal Register has cut newsroom budgets.

In the days before John Paton took over as CEO, absolutely, JRC made significant cuts to newsroom budgets. We cut newsrooms even when times were (in hindsight) very good. But since Paton took over two and a half years ago, newsroom spending has remained flat. That’s a remarkable achievement in the environment and economy of today, and I’d challenge you to find another major newspaper company that hasn’t cut newsroom spending over that time period. It should be noted that at some individual JRC newspapers, newsroom staffing might be down compared to two years ago, but overall across the company, it’s flat. And as recently as last week in Connecticut, we announced an expansion of newsroom staff in Middletown and Torrington with the addition of a full-time investigative reporting position focused on use of the Freedom of Information Act.

Myth #3 – Journal Register employees will lose their pensions.

Again, this is just me talking, but the Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. covers the past and present JRC employees who have pensions, regardless of what happens in the bankruptcy process. No one’s retirement is at risk.

Myth #4 – The bankruptcy filing represents a change in ownership and/or change in strategy.

While the Chapter 11 “auction” process calls for soliciting bids for the purchase of the company, a new “affiliate” of Alden Global Capital, the current owner of JRC and the holder of its debt, has submitted a “stalking horse bid” with the intention and hope of emerging as the owner after a process expected to take about 90 days. Speaking just for me (can’t say that enough), do the math, and-or talk to industry analysts and you’ll realize that the chances of anyone else making a serious bid for the company, although possible, are very unlikely. So, in theory, JRC would emerge from bankruptcy with the same ownership and same leadership, minus the huge structural legacy obligations that endanger the long-term health of our newspapers. And in theory, it would continue to be full steam ahead on the “digital first” strategy. Why? Because it has gotten better results than the rest of the industry. (See above.)

I have worked for Journal Register Company for nine years now, as a local editor, a corporate director of news, a publisher and now as group editor of our Connecticut newspapers and northeast regional editor for JRC and Digital First Media newspapers in Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts and Vermont.

I was there for “the old JRC,” focused 100 percent on print and practically 0% on journalism. I was there when help wanted classified revenue dropped 75 percent in a single year at the height of the economic downturn when I was publisher in Torrington. I was there through the “first” JRC bankruptcy, prior to John Paton’s arrival. And I’ve been here for the Paton era.

Never in my history with JRC has more attention and focus been placed (right from the top of the company) on improving local journalism, and never has editorial investment been so strong in relation to the overall economic picture of the company and the industry.

As Joshua Benton of Nieman Lab explains in this excellent analysis of yesterday’s filing, the JRC bankruptcy maneuver could be the newspaper industry’s first true chance at emerging out from under the print legacy millstone that has led to continual newsroom cuts at other companies, has made them too inflexible to compete in a digital age and endangers the future of local news reporting in many communities across the country.

Register Citizen Newsroom Cafe celebrates one-year anniversary

16 Dec

Hard to believe, but it’s been one year since The Register Citizen launched a “Newsroom Cafe” and invited its audience to be involved at every step in the process of local journalism.

Boiling it down, we’ve learned that:

Managing Editor Emily M. Olson leads a workshop for local organizations and church groups on how to get information published by The Register Citizen.

- Transparency builds trust.

- Openness improves your journalism, leading to new and more diverse sources and improving accuracy and context.

- Partnerships make you stronger.

As Andy Carvin said recently, it’s not about “leveraging your audience.” It’s about listening and knowing how the audience is telling its own story, and in some ways acting as a facilitator as the community organizes itself around common interests or goals.

If you feel that you must own and control every piece of content and platform for delivery, you will wither and die in isolation from the networked world.

In terms of tactical lessons learned over the past year, we’ve found that:

- There will never be a good time to commit time to audience engagement, becoming more transparent, trying new things and training staff, especially in a newsroom as small as ours. You have to “just do it.”

- Effective community engagement won’t happen on your terms, it will happen on the audience’s terms. Their lives don’t revolve around your internal process or desire to get a story done. But the power of the crowd can be amazing when you’ve tapped into something that citizens care deeply about and are either already organizing around or have been waiting for a platform to organize around. Readers (for the most part) aren’t going to tune in to the live stream of your daily story meeting because they care about what you talk about every day. They’re going to tune in because they know you’ll be discussing a particular issue that affects their neighborhood, workplace or family. Or the ideal – they’ll tune in because they feel welcomed to bring up that issue to you because you HAVEN’T been discussing it and they think you should.

- The logistics of community engagement deserve a dedicated staff position (or positions), but it’s a principle that must be incorporated into everything we do and taken up by everyone in the newsroom.

- “Just do it” should be the mantra given the urgent need to transform our business model and how quickly things around us change. But we need to spend more time along the way communicating internally and making sure that every employee understands and buys in to the underlying principles of openness and engagement. You can be undermined pretty quickly by staff who are just going through the motions.

Significant articles that have been written about the Newsroom Cafe experiment and/or its role in the JRC turnaround over the past year:

GigaOm, “For Newspapers, the Future is Now and Digital Must Be First,” December 2, 2010

New York Times, “Walk in, Grab a Muffin, and Watch a Newspaper Reinvent Itself,” December 15, 2010

Poynter, “Register Citizen Takes Analog Approach to Reader Engagement: Open Doors,” December 16, 2010

Suburban Newspapers of America, “Opening Up Your Newsroom,” March 7, 2011

Editor & Publisher, “10 Newspapers That Do It Right,” March 15, 2011

Nieman Lab, “Journal Register’s Open Advisory Meeting: Bell, Jarvis and Rosen Put Those New Media Maxims to the Test,” March 25, 2011

Poynter, “At Washington Post and Register Citizen, ‘report-an-error’ forms make it easier to identify, respond to mistakes,” April 4, 2011

NewspaperTurnaround.Com blog, “Why Our Small Town Daily is Adding a Full-Time Curator,” April 20, 2011

JoyMayer.Com, “Inside the Engagement Experiments at The Register Citizen,” May 4, 2011

Columbia Journalism Review, “John Paton’s Big Bet,” July/August 2011

EditorsWeblog.Org, “JRC’s Jim Brady: Uniting Digital First With a Face-to-Face Approach,” September 5, 2011

Register Citizen Newsroom Cafe blog, “What the Newsroom Cafe Has Taught Us About Improving Local Journalism,” September 13, 2011

The Associated Press, Open Connecticut Newsroom Wins APME Innovation Award,” September 15, 2011

American Journalism Review, “Wooing Them With Coffee,” October/November 2011

Connecticut Newsroom blog, “Corrections, Fact Checking and Accountability: Our New Approach,” October 26, 2011

Annenberg Innovation Lab paper by Melanie Sill, “The Case for Open Journalism Now,” December 7, 2011

John Paton’s “Digital First” blog, “New Media’s New Role as Both Medium and Messenger in a World of Partnerships,” December 13, 2011

Investigative and in-depth reporting bolstered by ‘Digital First’

28 Nov

“What about the journalism?”

That’s the question media analyst Ken Doctor asked a few months ago about both the philosophy of a “digital first” approach to running newspapers and the newly formed company “Digital First” Media that now oversees both Journal Register Company (including the New Haven Register, Middletown Press and Register Citizen, among other publications, in Connecticut) and Media News Group (ranging from the Denver Post and San Jose Mercury News to the Berkshire Eagle and Lowell Sun in Massachusetts).

Michelle Tuccitto Sullo

CEO John Paton has a plan that many see as the best hope for rescuing the newspaper industry (in case you missed it, see the recent New York Times story here, and a more extensive Times interview with Paton here).

Will Paton’s formula of cutting print edition-related costs and emphasizing Flip cameras, mobile phones and Twitter improve local journalism or leave a multi-platformed but shallow and empty reproduction in its place?

At the end of the day, Doctor asked, “Are the readers, the citizens of its communities, better served?”

Without question, Journal Register Company news organizations are serving their communities better in breaking news situations thanks to the philosophy of “Digital First.” Hurricane Irene was a great example. When it comes to speed and use of platforms beyond print – from SMS alerts, to social media, blogging, video – we are light years ahead of where we used to be, and our audience has benefited.

But what about depth, context, investigative reporting?

It has taken longer to bear fruit, but as Digital First shifts emphasis away from the print production process, it is freeing up resources to invest in better journalism. And “slow news” – journalism that delves deeply into a story, that invests staff time in investigative work – has a prominent place alongside the breakneck pace of breaking news alerts.

This morning, we announced a newsroom reorganization in Connecticut that will establish a full-time investigations editor position at the New Haven Register for the first time in more than 20 years. A second full-time position will be devoted to the “explainer” format of in-depth reporting on local and state issues and “fact checking” statements made by politicians, public officials, activists and business leaders.

Mary O'Leary

Michelle Tuccitto Sullo, who joined the Register in 1992 and has covered courts and served as Naugatuck Valley bureau chief, will be charged not only with pursuing investigative stories on her own, but in creating a culture of investigative reporting in the newsrooms of the New Haven Register and its sister JRC papers in Connecticut. She’ll team up with staff reporters to pursue stories that the daily grind of a beat don’t allow them to pursue. Michelle draws upon strong knowledge of court and Freedom of Information Act process and award-winning investigative experience in writing about cold case murder and missing persons cases.

New Haven Register Topics Editor Mary O’Leary, who has 31 years of experience covering state government and a variety of other beats at the paper, will be freed from chasing the press conference of the day to focus on in-depth reporting. She will split her time between “explainers” and “fact checking” – both aimed at cutting through the “he said, she said” blizzard of political spin and process to help our readers get to the truth.

We are creating these positions and replacing Michelle and Mary in their old beats, for a big net increase in our “feet on the street” reporting. And we’re doing that by consolidating positions that were focused either entirely or primarily on the process of putting out the print edition of the newspaper.

Big news for our company and the newspaper industry

7 Sep

When John Paton took over as CEO of Journal Register Companyin early 2010 and laid out a vision for our struggling, old-school newspaper company that called for a rapid “Digital First, Print Last” transformation, one got the sense that it was one of the first tremors in a possible upheaval and revolution for the entire newspaper industry.

John Paton

Well, if Paton’s changes at JRC (owner of the New Haven Register, Middletown Press, Register Citizen, Connecticut Magazine and a number of weekly publications in Connecticut) were tremors, this morning was the earthquake.

This morning’s announcement of the formation of Digital First Media and Paton’s appointment as CEO of both Media News Group and Journal Register Company means that Paton’s vision and strategy will be spread to a huge footprint of the U.S. newspaper industry.

For those who care about quality journalism and the communities that these newspapers and websites serve, it’s wonderful news. Not just because Paton is pursuing a new business model for newspapers that show a path toward survival and sustainability, but because he’s passionate about journalism itself.

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