Beating the competition with Twitter

Steve Buttry, who is digital transformation editor for Digital First Media, published an important blog post on Saturday about using Twitter to break news. That led to a conversation, the highlights of which I’ve Storified. Please have a look.

Paid digital content comes to New Haven

I find it interesting that the Digital First paywall announced Monday will include the New Haven Register, even though the Register competes with the free New Haven Independent, a nonprofit online-only news organization.

Maybe it won’t matter much — the Independent covers nothing outside of New Haven, whereas the Register offers a lot of suburban coverage. Still, this is something to keep an eye on.

Digital First chief executive John Paton has long been a critic of paywalls, as he  acknowledges in this blog post. “Let’s be clear, paid digital subscriptions are not a long-term strategy. They don’t transform anything; they tweak. At best, they are a short-term tactic,” he writes, adding: “But it’s a tactic that will help us now.”

The appeal of Kushner’s print-centric approach

Aaron Kushner
Aaron Kushner

The media’s fascination with Aaron Kushner’s print-centric approach to reviving the newspaper business continues.

Kushner, a former Boston greeting-card executive who bought the Orange County Register a year ago, is the subject this week of flattering pieces by Rory Carroll in The Guardian and Rem Rieder in USA Today. Rieder’s piece, significantly, focuses on Kushner’s plans to launch a paper in Long Beach, Calif., that would compete with one run by John Paton, whose “Digital First” orientation puts him at the opposite end of the spectrum from Kushner in any discussion about the future of news.

Kushner, who once wanted to buy The Boston Globe, has a big idea: that newspapers have a lot of life left in them, and that the way to save them is to bolster shrunken news staffs and ask readers to pay. Print and online readers of the Register are charged the same price — $1 a day.

There’s a lot to like about the Kushner approach. It’s hard to argue with more journalism and an end to a generation’s worth of endless newsroom cuts. Even more enticing is that he holds out the hope that the last 15 years have all been a mirage — that we never should have responded to the disruptive changes brought by the Internet, and that, even at this late date, we can somehow click our heels three times and it will all go away.

It’s too early to rule out the possibility that Kushner might succeed. But classified ads, which comprised about 40 percent of a typical daily newspaper’s revenues as recently as a dozen years ago, are gone and are not coming back. The Kushner approach is an open invitation for an enterprising television or radio station to bolster its website and offer a free, comprehensive source of local news. It’s also a little disconcerting to see a large, important paper like the Register cut itself off from the sharing culture of the Internet.

Still, it’s hard not to wish Kushner well. Even if you’re not a print nostalgist (I’m certainly not), his experience may offer some lessons from which we could all learn.

Paywalls, empowerment and “information apartheid”

John Paton

Nicole Narea and Clifton Wang of the Yale Daily News have written a preview of “The Wired City,” which is primarily about the life and times of the New Haven Independent, an innovative online-only nonprofit news site.

At a moment when online paywalls have become one of the biggest issues debated within the news business, it’s interesting that both the Independent and its newspaper competitor, the New Haven Register, have decided to keep their sites free. Here’s what Independent founder and editor Paul Bass tells the Yale Daily News:

We need to cut down on the information apartheid. If we are going to construct a paywall, we may as well not publish. We believe in community empowerment through journalism.

Of course the Register, as a for-profit entity, has a different challenge: selling enough online advertising to justify its decision to continue giving away its news. It’s a philosophy that John Paton, chief executive of the Register’s corporate parent, the Journal Register Co., describes as “Digital First.”

Journal Register is currently in bankruptcy for the second time in four years, but is expected to re-emerge later this spring. No doubt it’s going to be painful — among other things, employees have been told they will have to reapply for their jobs, and it is far from clear how many will be rehired. The Newspaper Guild-Communications Workers of America recently had some tough words for Journal Register, reports Bill Shea of Crain’s Detroit Business.

As Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journal Lab observed last September, the re-emergence from bankruptcy will also represent the best chance for Paton — one of the most closely watched executives in the newspaper business — to prove that a digital orientation can turn around a legacy newspaper chain with a lower-revenue, lower-cost approach. Interesting times ahead.

Photo found at Newspaper Death Watch.

What’s at stake in the latest Journal Register bankruptcy

Matt DeRienzo

This article also appears at the Nieman Journalism Lab.

In the spring of 2009, when I began researching what would become a book about online community journalism, I couldn’t have found a better foil than the New Haven Register.

Owned by the bankrupt Journal Register Co. (JRC), the daily was moribund and mediocre, its disconnect from the community symbolized by its location: a gigantic converted shirt factory, partly surrounded by barbed wire, on the outskirts of the city next to Interstate 95. The contrast with the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit, online-only startup that is the focus of my book, couldn’t have been more stark.

Three years later, when I turned in my manuscript, things had changed considerably. JRC was out of bankruptcy. Its chief executive, John Paton, was winning industry plaudits for his “Digital First” strategy of accelerating the transformation from print to online. The New Haven Register had a new, young, progressive editor, Matt DeRienzo. And JRC had outsourced printing to the Hartford Courant as DeRienzo had begun preparing to move his staff to a yet-to-be-determined location in the downtown. New Haven, a poor, largely minority city of about 130,000 people, was suddenly home to two of the country’s most closely watched experiments in reinventing local journalism. (My book on all of this, “The Wired City,” will be published by the University of Massachusetts in 2013.)

So I was shocked on Wednesday when Jim Romenesko reported that JRC was once again entering bankruptcy. As Paton explained it on his blog, the idea is to get the company out from under the legacy costs that it took on when the newspaper business was a lot larger and more profitable than it is today: debt; long-term leases on buildings it no longer needs; and pension obligations. The strategy is to take advantage of Chapter 11 in order to reduce JRC’s cost structure and re-emerge from bankruptcy in a matter of months.

The pension piece has been the subject of considerable consternation on Twitter and elsewhere, as it raised the specter of out-of-state investors (JRC is headquartered in suburban Philadelphia) taking away from loyal employees what is rightfully theirs. DeRienzo countered by pointing out that pensions are guaranteed by the federal government. “No one’s retirement is at risk,” he wrote.

There’s no question that guaranteed pensions are largely a thing of the past in the private sector, with defined benefits having given way some years ago to the era of the 401(k). And JRC is not the only newspaper company with pension problems. In 2009, the New York Times Co. nearly reached a deal to sell the Boston Globe that would reportedly have brought in less cash ($35 million) than the Globe’s future pension obligations ($59 million), which prospective buyers were asked to assume.

In other words, if you were going to start any private enterprise from scratch, you would almost certainly not include pensions as one of the benefits that you would offer your employees. And I have little trouble believing that JRC’s pension system is weighing the company down.

On the other hand, it seems to me that JRC may soon face a “Where’s the beef?” moment. Paton’s tireless advocacy of Digital First has gotten a lot of attention and praise — deservedly so. At some point, though, Paton has to deliver real improvements both to the journalism of JRC’s news organizations and to the bottom line.

I think Paton and DeRienzo have the right values and the right motives. I’m rooting for them. Fundamentally, though, we are talking about trying to effect change from the top down. Corporate chain ownership has been a disaster for community journalism. I’d rather my paper be owned by a good chain than a bad one. But neither is an adequate substitute for local ownership — and yes, I realize that’s no panacea, either.

As the Nieman Journalism Lab’s Joshua Benton points out, this may be Paton’s last, best chance to remake JRC exactly along the lines that he envisions — truly a new start without the dead weight of his predecessors’ poor decisions dragging him down. I’m eager to see what he’ll do with that opportunity.

New Haven Register to stop presses, cut 105 jobs

As a symbol of a newspaper that’s out of touch with its community, you couldn’t do much better (in other words, much worse) than the headquarters of the New Haven Register. The city’s daily newspaper is located in a former shirt factory alongside Interstate 95 amid an undistinguished strip of businesses. A barbed-wire fence surrounds part of the property.

So though you’ve got to be sad at today’s news that the Register will soon be printed by the Hartford Courant and that 105 people will lose their jobs, in the long run it should provide the Register with an opportunity to rebuild its community ties. The New Haven Independent covers the story, and it follows by days the announcement that the Boston Globe will soon begin printing most editions of the Boston Herald.

New Haven Register editor Matt DeRienzo has said he wants to move the staff — or at least part of it — to a downtown location where members of the public will be free to walk in, grab a cup of coffee and observe news meetings — as they already do at a smaller paper he also runs, the Torrington Register Citizen.

Recently, the Register began webcasting its news meetings as well.

Like many papers, the Register moved out of the downtown in the 1970s 1980s as a reflection of the large industrial enterprises they were in those days — manufacturing plants that took deliveries of paper and ink, and then sent fleets of vehicles across the region to distribute the finished product. It made a certain kind of sense, but it also represented the fraying of a relationship with the communities those papers served.

Now the Register’s owner, the Journal Register Co., has embarked on an extensive reinvention effort called “Digital First.” The Register’s decision to jettison its printing operation is a reflection of that effort, and it could be a sign of better days to come.