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Who knew what when – DFM edition

Love to see a Ken Doctor headline. Enough financial meat for the banker types, but grounded in editorial sources. Yesterday’s column was all about the shocking profitability of Digital First Media’s asphyxiating papers.

At this point, you’d be hard-pressed to find an advocate of DFM.

But five years ago, the opposite was true; back then DFM was regarded as the next great hope for newspaper companies. How times change…

Did we (the journalism community) enable Alden’s exploitation? Were we cheerleaders too easily? I don’t know. But that doubt is why today I focus myopically on entrepreneurial journalism; we need diversified ownership.

The signs were there during my time at Thunderdome, 2012-2014. Clues laid strewn about the company: A disconnect between sales and editorial; a dysfunctional product organization; speculative content strategies; strategy by vendor; Tout and other questionable Digital First Ventures investments; rumors of traffic fraud; and much more. Not that these were Thunderdome problems; we had exceptional talent and leadership in that newsroom. No, these were symptomatic of larger organizational dysfunction.

The music stopped in April 2014 when all of Thunderdome was laid off

Through this period, Digital First Media had kept an advisory board. News industry luminaries like Jeff Jarvis, Emily Bell, and Jay Rosen. They and many others were bought into the DFM story, only to be surprised by this development.

This round of layoffs marked a major shift in how the news community regarded Digital First Media, and it also ignited a debate about whether CEO John Paton was a false prophet and snake oil salesman, or if he was simply too ambitious.

Jim Brady, who served as Digital First Media’s editor-in-chief, offered this comment to Dan Kennedy:

He was maybe a little more aggressive and beat his chest a little bit more than I would. 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.

Jim Brady on John Paton
Digital First Media’s former CEO, John Paton

Since leaving the CEO position, Paton has not tweeted or commented publicly about Alden’s management of Digital First Media. Kennedy also offers a favorable interpretation of Paton’s tenure: that he had a good vision without enough time to implement.

So, was Paton a false prophet? Or did he believe what he was selling? Did he change his mind at some point? Or did the bankers? Where did the projections fall apart? What might have happened without the MNG acquisition and if he had focused on JRC and realizing the Ben Franklin Project playbook?

I fell for the song-and-dance. I really thought DFM might help save journalism. The Brother.ly model (what became Billy Penn) received tens of thousands of DFM money for research and development, and I was at my most optimistic just before the collapse, when I thought this model could be applied to potentially other communities.

I feel some degree of complicity in the current dire situation and can’t help but wonder how I could have acted differently to prevent, warn, or mitigate the damages of Alden’s continued vulture capitalism.

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