The Nation recently published a splendid takedown of Randall Smith, a little-known Wall Street tycoon whose avarice has hollowed out daily newspapers from coast to coast. By “gutting” his papers, Julie Reynolds reports, Smith was able to amass the $57 million he needed to buy 16 mansions in Palm Beach, Florida. “Don’t just blame the Internet for journalism’s decline,” she writes. “Old-fashioned capitalist greed also strangles newspapers.”
The name of Smith’s newspaper empire is Digital First Media, an ironic moniker for an enterprise dedicated to the proposition that every last penny should be squeezed out of the shrinking print business. But the name isn’t just ironic — it’s also iconic. Although Reynolds doesn’t mention it in her story, it wasn’t that long ago that Digital First was created by a charismatic, foul-mouthed executive who was hailed as a possible savior of the news business.
If you’re a newspaper junkie, you’ll remember him: John Paton, celebrated by The New York Times and the Columbia Journalism Review, a man given to florid pronouncements about the need for newspapers to adapt to digital as rapidly as possible lest they die of irrelevance. As the CJR put it in 2011: “To those who complained that digital ad prices were so low compared to print ads that it was like ‘trading dollars for dimes,’ he retorted with his catchphrase, ‘Start stacking dimes.’”
Paton was put in charge of two moribund newspaper chains: the Journal Register Co., whose flagship was the New Haven Register, and MediaNews Group, whose largest paper was The Denver Post. He called the amalgamation Digital First, and he vowed either to save the business or to go down trying.
My first encounter with the Digital First aura came in the summer of 2011, when I interviewed Matt DeRienzo, then the young new editor of the Register, who’d already made his mark at a smaller Journal Register paper by opening a café and inviting the public to attend news meetings. “‘Digital First’ to me means putting journalism first, and it means putting community first, or readers first,” DeRienzo told me. “Readers don’t need to come to us as this exclusive voice on high, like the nightly news. There are 8 million sources of information out there for us, and our job is to sift through that for them and curate and aggregate and do original reporting as well, and to work with them at every step of the process to connect them with that. And we’re the better for it, I think.”
Paton’s most ambitious initiative was something called Project Thunderdome, whose mission was to create common content and production platforms for Digital First’s papers, allowing local journalists to focus on covering their communities. But the Paton era proved to be shockingly brief. That’s because Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that was headed by Randall Smith, began bleeding Digital First dry before Paton’s vision could be fully implemented. Project Thunderdome was shut down. Costs were cut. The company’s newspapers didn’t even have decent websites. (So much for “digital first.”) DeRienzo quit in 2014, and Paton left the following year.
Jim Brady, a former washingtonpost.com editor who had run Project Thunderdome as Digital First’s top editor, spoke favorably of Paton when we talked in early 2016. “He was maybe a little more aggressive and beat his chest a little bit more than I would,” said Brady, who subsequently launched a company that operates the mobile-first local news sites Billy Penn in Philadelphia and The Incline in Pittsburgh. “On the other hand, it got him a lot of attention and probably allowed us to hire some people, get some people interested in us that wouldn’t have been interested otherwise.”
As Julie Reynolds notes in her article in The Nation, Digital First is now one of the country’s largest newspaper chains. The company bought the Orange County Register out of bankruptcy in 2016 following Boston businessman Aaron Kushner’s failed attempt to restore the Register’s fortunes. In Massachusetts, Digital First owns the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg and The Sun of Lowell. With luck, perhaps Digital First will someday sell them to local buyers, as it did with the Berkshire Eagle of Pittsfield, a transaction that has revived the Eagle and its affiliated papers in southern Vermont.
“Unlike large corporate owners in the past,” Reynolds writes, “the stated goal of the investment firms is not to keep struggling newspapers alive; it is to siphon off the assets and profits, then dispose of what little remains.”
The Digital First story might have had a different ending if Paton had been able to implement his ideas. To this day many smaller papers without debt and with little competition are making money and serving their communities, even if they’re not exactly thriving. Long-term, their demise may be inevitable. Short-term, they’re being hustled along to the boneyard by the likes of Digital First.