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March 29 2011

20:00

What’s Project Thunderdome, you ask? Inside Jim Brady’s new job at Journal Register Company

So Jim Brady, formerly of AOL, washingtonpost.com, and TBD, is now of the Journal Register Company. That’s big news — and not only because it had been an open question where Brady would land after he left TBD in November. As John Paton, JRC’s CEO, put it in a release announcing the news: “The debate of bloggers vs. journalists or citizen journalists vs. professionals is now over. The new business models of news demand we understand and incorporate both.”

Brady “will immediately be responsible for Project Thunderdome,” the release notes, which is an initiative that is — besides being, obviously, one of the most delightfully named projects in the news innovation world — “Journal Register Company’s plan for engaging audience and creating content across all platforms and geographies.”

But what is Thunderdome, exactly? I talked to Brady and Jon Cooper, JRC’s vice president for content, to learn more.

Essentially, they told me, Thunderdome is an attempt to take Journal Register’s current collective of media properties — community newspapers joined at the top by a corporate brand — into an interwoven network. While the project’s ultimately about content (both improving its quality and expanding it), it’s also about production practices: It’s trying, in particular, to create uniform standards across the organization when it comes to content management. Ultimately, Thunderdome will mean a redesign for JRC’s digital platform as well as its print platform, giving JRC’s papers — in print and especially (per JRC’s “digital first, print last” ethos) online — a standard look and feel.

Essentially, Journal Register is “building a news system,” Brady puts it, “as opposed to trying to retrofit one that came out of a different time.”

On the one hand, Thunderdome is about systematization and centralization — and the production-side efficiencies that come from them. “Right now, we operate anywhere from 6 to 8 [CMSes], depending on who you talk to,” Cooper notes — and the reason that number varies is that “we have places that don’t actually have a CMS.”

Those CMS-less properties — gird yourselves, techies — use a Windows folder structure to manage their content. Imagine erasing a coworker’s content, Cooper notes, “because you happen to name your story ‘Fire,’ and I had named my story ‘Fire,’ and I copy over yours.”

So that’s one side of it. But Thunderdome is also about the categorization of content. Much of the efficiency JRC hopes will be gained from the new system will come from the bifurcation of local content and what it calls “common” content — in other words, from distinguishing between information that requires feet-on-the-street reporting and information can be provided by wire services or other more centralized sources. It’s the classic distinction between wire content and original, taken to the next level. So take, for example, content like stocks, weather, comics — things that a journalist might not define as journalism in the strictest sense, but which readers want as part of their news experience. Journal Register, across its 18 daily papers, does over 50,000 of those pages a year, Cooper told me, creating different products for different locations. Sometimes that’s necessary, of course (the weather in Connecticut being different from the weather in Michigan); often, though, it’s simply redundant — a waste of time and resources.

Thunderdome aims to establish a 40/60 — or even 50/50 — ratio of local content to common content. “JRC is a fairly large organization,” Cooper notes, “so we have a decent amount of power that we put behind a project like this.” As Brady puts it, the system will allow the papers “to spend their actual staff time covering local news and embedding themselves in the local community — which they have to do to make themselves successful.”

A big part of Brady’s job at JRC will be to figure out the specifics of that kind of production-side streamlining, determining, for example, content partners — JRC, yesterday, announced a financial-news-content deal with The Street — and staffing the Thunderdome effort with vertical content specialists. Another part of it will be figuring out the audience engagement side of the equation — to put to use the knowledge Brady gained at TBD. “That’s key to us,” Cooper says — “key to Thunderdome, key to our brand expansion, key to our current brands.” Brady’s work won’t just be about “providing leadership to our journalists,” he notes; it’ll also be about “working with our communities — our physical, geographic communities, but also our digital communities.”

Which all sounds eminently reasonable and, well, not Thunderous. So, then: What’s with that name? JRC’s CEO, John Paton, named the project, Cooper told me. When he’d visited The Washington Post, someone had talked about the paper’s digital center as “the Thunderdome” — and the name, both epic and tongue-in-cheek at once, came into play as a working title as Journal Register laid out its (also epically named) Ben Franklin Project. The project came out of the basic realization, Cooper says, that “we can’t wait for a unified CMS; we can’t wait for a unified technology to be in place. We have to make it happen sooner.”

It’s that kind of thinking that attracted Brady to Journal Register in the first place. When you’re looking for a new job, he notes, you’re looking at both “the size of the opportunity and the size of the challenge.” For Thunderdome, the size of both is “large.” “Folks have done production hubs; folks have done content bureaus or content sharing,” Cooper says. “But what we’re really looking to do is to empower local journalism. And part of that is to remove the roadblocks to small operations.”

Image by rachelbinx used under a Creative Commons license.

June 02 2010

13:00

The art of the (public) cover letter: Journal Register staff apply for ideaLab spots via blog comments

After last week’s successful completion of the Journal Register Company’s Ben Franklin Project, CEO John Paton was looking for a new project that would keep the momentum of innovation going for the beleaguered newspaper network.

Enter the ideaLab, JRC’s new strategy to “equip 15 Journal Register Company staff members with the latest tools and give them the time and money to experiment with them.” Journal Register will carve out 10 hours a week from ideaLab members’ current jobs, Google-20-percent-time-style, “to allow them time to experiment with these tools and report back on how we can change our business for the better.” And, out of advance recognition that ideaLab commitments might seep into staffers’ free time, the company will ad an extra $500 per month to those staffers’ pay.

Paton is currently in the process of selecting the company’s ideaLab members — and, to do it, he’s asked Journal Register staff to apply for the positions. Publicly, if they choose:

In about 200 words or less, email me at jpaton@journalregister.com or post on my blog what you would do with the tools and time to improve our business. Any Journal Register Company employee in any division or any department – part-time or full-time – is eligible. I will involve our Advisory Board ( http://bit.ly/dyhkVK ) in the selection of the 15 staffers and we will make sure the ideas of those chosen will be posted on my blog and the Ben Franklin Project site.

Now, the ball is in your court. Over to you.

What happened next was pretty remarkable: Journal Register staffers took that ball — and ran with it. Paton’s post has received over 150 comments — nearly all of them from Journal Register employees, best I can tell — and nearly all of them lengthy, thoughtful, and earnest. Cover letters, in comment form.

Here’s one from Joe Cahill of the Montgomery News:

Despite just officially joining JRC as a part-time employee, I have spent the last five months interning with Montgomery Media in Pennsylvania. As a college student majoring in Communications, working in multimedia journalism has been the fulfillment of a life-long dream. I have always dreamed of working in the journalism industry, and having the ability to utilize my passion for new technologies and multimedia production while doing so has proven invaluable to me.

Since its inception, I have followed the Ben Franklin Project diligently. I’ve worked alongside one of the editors, Andy Stettler, for the past five months. Andy, a friend and former classmate of mine, has taught me volumes during my tenure at Montgomery Media, and I continue to work alongside him to produce the best possible content for the company.

I would like to humbly submit myself as a candidate for JRC’s ideaLab. If chosen, sir, I promise to spend every waking second as an innovator, and using the tools and time given to me to both better the company and better myself as a student of Communications. Thinking differently is what I do best, and working for the ideaLab would be my chosen calling.

And one from Marissa Raymo of The Oakland Press:

With the ideaLab technology, I would like to explore ways to develop mobile websites for our newspapers (in addition to the mobile apps that are already in development). For example, the New York Times has both a downloadable application for iPhone/Android/Blackberry platforms and a mobile website (mobile.nytimes.com) that can be accessed without any downloading.

I would also research additional revenue opportunities through online advertising, etc. I recently tested a new online revenue opportunity through backlinks on our newspaper website. Since newspaper sites are generally highly ranked pages, our advertisers may be able to increase both their websites’ page rank and traffic through direct links on our newspaper websites (which cannot be made through our banner ad serving software). With time and technology, I believe that this could be developed into a very profitable revenue opportunity.

Most importantly, I would use the ideaLab to find ways to make our entire internet presence more user-friendly to the generations that were not raised on this technology. I look forward to the innovations and renovations to come. Thank you for the opportunity to grow with this company!

And one from Victor Ciarrone of The Morning Journal:

John,

As an account executive for The Morning Journal, I am excited about the direction the company is heading as a multi media news company. The Ben Franklin Project is very intriguing.

One of the main roadblocks we run into, as reps, is ad production. The time from receiving the ad material to the final proof can take days, sometimes weeks. With a faster turnover on ad production, our time on the street may increase.

10 hours a week will be spent on incorporating the iPhone, iPad, and Netbook into the success of our sales staff. These three products can be utilized for the production of ads right in front of our clients. Using the iPhone to collect data, composing the ad with the iPAD, and delivering the final result with the net book. (Plus the Netbook weighs much less than the laptop I am carrying around – might save me from a hip replacement later on in life.) It will be a fun opportunity to find innovative ways to help our company succeed with the goals we have in place. Timed saved on production is more time on the street building relationships and contributing the success of where we as a company want to be in the near future.

Have a wonderful week and I hope to hear from you.

Victor Ciarrone
The Morning Journal
Retail Advertising

There’s much more in that vein. Anyone in the company can become part of the ideaLab, Paton told me — and while, “so far, one of the best applications is from an intern,” he’s also received applications from publishers of Journal Register papers. “It’s all departments, part-time, full-time. If you’re one of the 3,106 people on our payroll, you’re eligible.”

It’s pretty remarkable to see journalists essentially applying for jobs in the open (though the comments, Paton notes, don’t include the many emails he’s received containing similar cover-letter-like expositions). But the public-auditions phenomenon Paton’s post encouraged is of a piece with the transition toward transparency he’s been trying to inculcate at the company. “This was a crappy culture here before, at JRC, and hardly known for innovation,” Paton says. Staffers have “been screwed on pay, they’re been screwed on benefits” — trust in executives, understandably, has been low. But the ideaLab, both in its formulation and its application structure, is meant as a kind of crucible of cultural change. Like the Ben Franklin Project, “this is a way of making them think differently about the process.”

“The courage and tools to experiment”

It’s also a way of liberating Journal Register journalists. “When I started in this business in the ’70s — probably because we had more money than God — we weren’t afraid to experiment,” Paton notes. “Newsrooms used to be places where people hated to follow process, weren’t very good at rules, didn’t like authority, saw themselves as independent, and were generally anarchists — and proudly so.” Now, though, “dollars are challenged, and people are much more afraid to try new things.”

But giving journalists the freedom to experiment — reviving that spirit of independence and even rule-breaking — can be good business as well as good journalism. The Journal Register sites, Paton says, have gone from serving around 100,000 video streams this January 1, to, as of April — after the staff, later this winter, were given Flip cams and the mandate to use them — around 1 million. “So people can do this — if you give them the courage and tools to experiment.”

And how will the ideaLab leverage those goods? Basically, its members will be “free agents,” Paton says — they’ll be given tools and simply asked to experiment with them and find new ways to use them. There will be no real rules, “other than that we’re going to make sure you get 10 hours — so 25 percent of your work week — free.”

The idea for the ideaLab itself, Paton notes, actually came from Jay Rosen, a Journal Register Company advisory board member. (“As a CEO, my greatest gift is theft,” Paton says. “I used to be a rewrite man — I can take anybody’s good work and make it mine.”) Rosen sent Paton a note suggesting that the company put together a group of innovation-minded employees who could spearhead the company’s efforts at innovation. “And I thought it was a pretty good idea,” Paton says. But though it was the CEO who implemented the experiment, Paton notes — and here he loses some of his idea-thief cred — “all credit for the ideaLab goes to Jay Rosen.”

Of course, it’s not a given that the innovation-via-staffers approach the JRC’s ideaLab concept endorses is the best way to create value in a news organization. In the most recent episode of their Rebooting the News podcast, Rosen and Dave Winer discussed the idea — and Winer objected to the org-centric, supply-side-focused sensibility the ideaLab implicitly endorses. “I think you’re barking up the wrong tree,” Winer said. “I think these guys ought to go learn what their customers want. They ought to get on the other side of the fence — I think that’s where you’re going to find the answer.”

Still, there’s nothing to say that experiments oriented toward the demand side of news production couldn’t be part of the group’s mandate. In fact, when it comes to the ideaLab, pretty much anything is fair game, Paton says. The team will hold no regular meetings or conferences or check-ins; the idea is simply to give smart, knowledgeable, enthusiastic people the freedom to experiment, and see what happens. Paton, who ran news operations in Europe and Canada (as well as the U.S.) before taking the helm at Journal Register, has a farm in France; he’s learned, from cultivating it, the benefits of letting things bloom, organically. “I don’t want to manicure anything anymore,” he says. “I don’t want to be one of those guys on his John Deere, up on the lawn, making it cute. And I think that’s what this is going to be like: Think of it as wildflowers instead of a nice, clipped garden.”

May 21 2010

14:30

This Week in Review: Facebook circles the wagons, leaky paywalls, and digital publishing immersion

[Every Friday, Mark Coddington sums up the week’s top stories about the future of news and the debates that grew up around them. —Josh]

Should Facebook be regulated?: It’s been almost a month since Facebook’s expansion of Open Graph and Instant Personalization, and the concerns about the company’s invasion of privacy continue to roll in. This week’s telling example of how much Facebook information is public comes courtesy of Openbook, a new site that uses Facebook’s API to allow you to search all public Facebook updates. (Of course, you’ll find similarly embarrassing revelations via a Twitter search, but the point is that many of these people don’t know that what they’re posting is public.)

We also got another anti-Facebook diatribe (two, actually) from a web luminary: danah boyd, the Microsoft researcher and social media expert. Boyd, who spends a lot of time talking to young people about social media, noted two observations in her first post: Many users’ mental model of who can see their information doesn’t match up with reality, and people have invested so much time and resources into Facebook that they feel trapped by its changes. In the second post, Boyd proposes that if Facebook is going to refer to itself as a “social utility” (and it’s becoming a utility like water, power or the Internet, she argues), then it needs to be ready to be regulated like other utilities.

The social media blog Mashable has chimed in with a couple of defenses of Facebook (the web is all about sharing information; Facebook has normalized sharing in a way that users want to embrace), but the din has reached Facebook’s ears. The Wall Street Journal reported that the issue has prompted deep disagreements and several days of discussions at Facebook headquarters, and a Facebook spokesman said the company is going to simplify privacy controls soon.

Meanwhile, tech investor and entrepreneur Chris Dixon posited that Facebook is going to use its web-wide Like button to corner the market on online display ads, similar to the way Google did with text ads. Facebook also launched 0.facebook.com, a simple mobile-only site that’s free on some carriers — leading Poynter’s Steve Myers to wonder whether it’s going to become the default mobile web for feature phones (a.k.a. “dumb” phones). But The New York Times argued that when it comes to social data, Facebook still can’t hold a candle to the good, old-fashioned open web.

Are iPad apps worth it?: The iPad’s sales haven’t slowed down yet — it’s been projected to outsell the Mac, and one in five Americans say they might get one — but there are still conflicting opinions over how deeply publishers should get involved with it. Slate Group head Jacob Weisberg was the latest to weigh in, arguing that iPad apps won’t help magazines and newspapers like they think it will. He makes a couple of arguments we’ve seen several times over the past month or two: App producers are entering an Apple-controlled marketplace that’s been characterized by censorship, and apps are retrograde attempts to replicate the print experience.

“They’re claustrophobic walled gardens within Apple’s walled garden, lacking the basic functionality we now expect with electronic journalism: the opportunity to comment, the integration of social media, the ability to select text and paste it elsewhere, and finally the most basic function of all: links to other sources,” Weisberg says. GQ magazine didn’t get off to a particularly encouraging start with its iPad offerings, selling just 365 copies of its $2.99 Men of the Year iPad issue.

A few other folks are saying that the iPad is ushering in fundamental changes in the way we consume personal media: At Ars Technica, Forrester analyst Sarah Rotman Epps notes that the iPad is radically different from what people say they want in a PC, but they’re still more than willing to buy it because it makes complex computing simple. (The term Forrester is using to describe the tablet era, curated computing, seems like a stretch, though.) Norwegian digital journalist John Einar Sandvand offers a similar take, saying that tablets’ distinctive convenience will further weaken print newspapers’ position. And the Lab’s Josh Benton says the iPad could have an effect on the way we write, too.

Slipping through the Times’ and WSJ’s paywalls: New York Times editor Bill Keller gave an update late last week on the plans for his paper’s much-anticipated paywall — he didn’t really tell us anything new, but did indicate the Times’ solidified plans for the wall’s implementation. In reiterating the fact that he wasn’t breaking any news, though, Keller gave Media Matters’ Joe Strupp a bit of a clearer picture about how loose the Times’ metered model will be: “Those who mainly come to the website via search engines or links from blogs, and those who only come sporadically — in short, the bulk of our traffic — may never be asked to pay at all,” Keller wrote.

In the meantime, digital media consultant Mark Potts found another leaky paywall at The Wall Street Journal. Potts canceled his WSJ.com subscription (after 15 years!) and found that he’s still able to access for free almost everything he had previously paid for with only a few URL changes and the most basic of Google skills. And even much of that information, he argues, is readily available from other sources for free, damaging the value of the venerable Journal paywall. “Even the Journal can’t enforce the kind of exclusivity that would make it worth paying for — it’s too easy to look elsewhere,” Potts writes.

Another Times-related story to note: The paper’s managing editor for news, Jill Abramson, will leave her position for six months to become immersed in the digital side of the Times’ operation. The New York Observer tries out a few possible explanations for the move.

Going all-in on digital publishing: Speaking of immersion, two publishers in the past two weeks have tried a fascinating experiment: producing an issue entirely through new-media tools. The first was 48 Hour, a new San Francisco-based magazine that puts together each issue from beginning to end in two days. The magazine’s editors announced a theme, solicited submissions via email and Twitter, received 1,500 submissions, then put together the magazine, all in 48 hours. Several who saw the finished product were fairly impressed, but CBS’s lawyers were a little less pleased about the whole ‘48 Hour’ name. Gizmodo had a Q&A with the mag’s editors (all webzine vets) and PBS MediaShift and the BBC took a closer look at the editorial process.

Second, the Journal Register Company newspaper chain finished the Ben Franklin Project, an experiment in producing a daily and weekly newspaper and website using only free, web-based tools. Two small Ohio newspapers accomplished the feat this week, and Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore took a look inside the effort. What she uncovered should be an inspiration for people looking to implement change in newsrooms, especially ones that might be resistant to digital media. A quote from the daily paper’s managing editor sums it up: “When we started out, we said, ‘We’re going to do what? How are we going to do this?’ Now we’re showing ourselves that we can operate in a world that, even six months ago, used to be foreign to us.”

Reading roundup: This week, I’ve got two developments and a handful of other pieces to think on:

— Yahoo bought the online content producer Associated Content for $100 million this week. News business analyst Ken Doctor examined what this deal means for Yahoo (it’s big, he says), and considers the demand-and-advertising-driven model employed by Associated Content and others like Demand Media.

— If you follow NYU professor Jay Rosen on Twitter, you’ve heard a ton about fact-checking over the past couple of months. A couple more interesting tidbits on the subject this week: Fact-checks are consistently the AP’s most popular pieces online, and Minnesota Public Radio has unveiled PoliGraph, its own fact-checking effort.

— Poynter’s Rick Edmonds compares two of the more talked-about local news startups launching this summer, Washington D.C.’s TBD and Hawaii’s Honolulu Civil Beat. He’s got some great details on both. Poynter also put together a list of 200 moments over the last decade that transformed journalism.

— If you’re up for a quick, deep thought, the Lab’s Josh Benton muses on the need for news to structure and shrink its users’ world. “I think it’s journalists who need to take up that challenge,” he says, “to learn how to spin something coherent and absorbing and contained and in-the-moment and satisfying from the chaos of the world around us.”

— And once you’re done with that, head into the weekend laughing at The Onion’s parody of newspapers’ coverage of social media startups.

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