By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

What does “Digital First” really mean?

New Haven’s final pre-primary mayoral debate in what has been a spirited campaign was held Thursday — and the New Haven Register, the Journal Register Co.’s flagship, didn’t bother to cover it. Instead, the Register linked to a story in the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit news site.

It was a curious decision, to say the least, and it comes at a time when JRC chief executive John Paton is the toast of the newspaper business for espousing a “Digital First” strategy.

In late August I had a chance to interview Matt DeRienzo, the new editor of the Register (as well as of two other Connecticut dailies). He struck me as a nice guy and genuinely committed to Paton’s goal of reinventing the daily-newspaper business online. But even though this particular debate was not as high-profile as previous ones, it still seems strange to outsource a story about an important city election to another news organization.

Among the Journal Register Co.’s high-profile advisers is Jeff Jarvis, well known for saying, “Do what you do best and link to the rest.” Good advice. But if covering a mayoral debate is not among the things a city newspaper does best, then I think we have to ask why.

Maybe someone got sick — though I’d hate to think the Register is so thinly staffed that no one else was available to send into battle.

Update. Paton responds via Twitter: “NHR doesn’t cover one event and you think that calls into question Digital First as a strategy? Ridiculous.”

Update II. DeRienzo responds in the comments. And makes some good points.

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  1. Dan,
    First of all, thank you for all of your thoughtful analysis and criticism of news coverage in New Haven over the past few years. I’ve read up on all of it, actually, in preparation for my new job.
    I think the premise of this particular post is off-base. If it had been a straight criticism of our failure to cover the debate, I totally get it. I don’t know enough yet to even make a judgment on whether this was a crucial event for us to cover. I’m told that both reporters and editors were led to believe it was a meet-and-greet social event and not a formal debate and would have been all over it if they’d known. So that happens sometimes.
    Meanwhile, our reporters were investigating the utility companies’ response to Hurricane Irene, whether the state treasurer was a victim of racial profiling, why there’s been an explosion of violent crime in New Haven this year. They were writing about how local schools were explaining 9/11 to a post-9/11 generation. And on and on.
    To imply that we’re doing less original reporting and linking to others to make up for that is just not correct. We’ve never been able to cover everything, nor has the Independent. The difference is that the Independent has traditionally linked to others’ coverage of the things they can’t get to, and we have not. That’s changing at the New Haven Register because it’s better for the reader for us to curate and aggregate in addition to doing original reporting.
    Matt DeRienzo, group editor, JRC Connecticut

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Matt: Thank you for this response. I realize that to offer the criticism I did, I had to substitute my news judgment for yours. As a political junkie, I tend to think political stories should always rise to the top of the list. I still think the Register should have covered this debate, and it sounds like you would have if you and your staff had not misunderstood the nature of the event. Your readers were well served by your linking to the Independent’s story. But I think observers are understandably concerned when it looks like linking is being used as a substitute for original coverage. Sounds like that was not the case, and I’m glad to hear it.

  2. Dan, Regardless of how it’s being pursued at JRC, “Digital First” is really “Digital First Until Print Finishes Circling The Drain And Then Digital All The Time.”

    We’ve spent centuries advancing the print medium and business considerations make it difficult to unwind it all at once. Digital has really already replaced print, but people of habit will continue to use it for as long as it is offered.

    Part of our current collective responsibility is providing hospice care for print.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Mark: “Hospice care for print” — love that. It strikes me that there are several aspects to “Digital First.” One is a willingness to link out, which at the Register is new with @Matt. Smart, even admirable, but not if it means failure to cover stories you should be covering. In any event, Matt deserves some leeway, probably more than I gave him.

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