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Highlights from JRC and DFM

Last week’s soul-searching on Digital First Media led to a conversation own Twitter where others discussed their on experience becoming distant from DFM. As censure of DFM becomes the norm I wanted to take a minute and share some of the company’s greatest hits.

These are just a few of the lessons we can take from DFM even if today the Alden hedgies deserve public condemnation.

A year after being named to the post, Journal Register Company CEO John Paton, who went on to run the combined DFM, first appeared on the pages of industry publication Nieman Lab in 2011 for an interview with Beet.tv in which he declared DFM would beat Patch and HuffPo in the company’s markets.

Jim Brady was hired by Paton early after TBD’s shutdown. TBD was Jim Brady’s DC local venture within the Albritton company. JRC and DFM would take much DNA from Brady and TBD, and those heady days & #tbdnights still mark a high-water point for many on the hunt for a better local news model. The late great Steve Buttry was brought along to JRC shortly after

By 2012, Lab editor Josh Benton was asking the question-headline, Is this the industry’s first real reboot? There was real innovation happening during this period.

The Ben Franklin Project remains one of my favorite things JRC/DFM produced. In the announcement post (now private), Paton explained:

In the next 30 days, we are going to attempt to produce one single edition of one of our newspapers using only tools available for free on the web. Using social media and other digital tools available to us we will crowd source the news assignments, creation, editing and publishing of content. And we will do all of this in real-time with constant updates to that newspaper’s website.

BuzzMachine’s Jeff Jarvis, who also served on the JRC/DFM advisory board, wrote:

John and I were sitting in my CUNY office as he told me about the technology he’s saddled with at this orphaned newspaper company where he just took the helm. He used a term I swear I hadn’t heard in well more than a decade: “VDT.” That stand for “video display terminal,” the old, dumb box that was wired into newspaper mainframes. I was talking with a bunch of young journalists shortly afterwards and they’d never heard of VDTs (though they thought it could be cured with a shot). Well, Paton still has VDTs.

These efforts were well-intentioned, but the technology transformation never materialized at the corporate level. However, the Ben Franklin Project, along with another JRC effort, the Idea Lab, were successful at activating the JRC newsrooms in an exciting way, with innovation and execution coming from all levels of the company’s local newsrooms. Idea Lab staff were true believers in the direction taken by the company at that time; they remain an exceptionally engaged and talented group of journalists albeit not with DFM for the most part.

There was even an early hint of Brother.ly/Billy Penn around this time, when JRC partnered with Outside.in to develop a Philly product. Paton even joked that the name TBD was taken already.

To be sure, not all were enamored with the Alden operation; this Lab column predicted quite well our current situation. These critics would have a rejoinder in a few years when Thunderome got the axe.

Paton’s use of the press was intentional to drum up hype. As he explained in a panel at ISOJ:

We’re making a lot of noise right now in the blogosphere at JRC on purpose, and a lot of input from people around the world on things that we’re doing. It’s becoming how you run your company and how you collect news and information now is actually part of what you do as opposed to keeping it in a can behind that fortress wall and then releasing it out later as a finished product. You have to be a much more open and transparent company.

You need to supply the tools: better IT, better laptops, better broadband. My first day on the job I bought every reporter in the company a flip camera. We spent about 80,000 bucks doing that. And then because the company is so backwards, I then had to buy a whole bunch of laptops and send them out to the divisions so they could edit the video from the flip cameras.

That’s OK. It was a way of part stunt and part way of saying to people, “It’s a new way of thinking out there.

Paton may be minimizing his own ideas here. When the New York Times covers Torrington’s open newsroom, that’s a good thing even if the press coverage was an intended outcome. The ideas got publicity because they felt right to people.

Not everything was peaches and cream though. As quoted above, technology change made a big part of Paton’s agenda. Paton brought along an ImpreMedia colleague, Bob Mason, as CTO, a position he would hold for DFM, too. Mason–who now works for Saxotech–made implementing Saxotech his biggest priority. Although Thunderdome was mentioned as the reason for switching to Saxotech, the decision was made before the bulk of the team came onboard, and the benefits did not materialize for the newsroom as described in that article.

Steve Buttry’s last project with DFM, Project Unbolt, would start removing some of the CMS blockers facing newsrooms. The Denver-based development team went on to work with Alley to realize a WordPress-based CMS. But the Saxotech decision (repeated at DFM) sucked much oxygen out of the room during a crucial time.

Thunderdome itself produced a number of projects that were good for the company. Robyn Tomlin was hired from the New York Times’ Regional Media Group (now owned by Halifax) and headed the effort. On Twitter there was some discussion of whether Thunderdome was a strategy and how it was evaluated. The end of Thunderdome came when it was examined as a free-standing profit & loss statement; much of Thunderdome’s upside came in identifying system-wide problems, promoting editorial best practices, and connecting local journalists with additional content and resources that could be used to supplement their own coverage.

A great example is the Thunderdome Spotlight Series, which recognized the best journalism produced in the DFM network. We had DFMies for things like Innovator of the Year, SEO Headline Writing, Data Journalism, etc. 

The Spotlight section on the archived Thunderdome blog contains a great collection of local journalism wins and backstories.

The OutsideThunderdome.com blog archive is thanks to Tom Meagher, who ran the news apps team for Thunderdome. That squad, along with the rest of Mandy Jenkins’ squad (which included social & video too) added institutional expertise to DFM, making experts accessible in a way that’s very difficult to capture on the balance sheet.

The tragedy is that not everyone has “moved on” from DFM; imagine working there today! These journalists face dilemmas, it’s not as if local journalism jobs are plentiful, nor do many of these communities have significant alternative media competition (except from broadcast).

If you believe #NewsMatters follow the hashtag and support the unions working to protect what local journalists we have left.

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