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The Gospel According to John Paton: Burn baby Burn

"If I was running a newspaper company in Canada I would be setting things on fire"
John Paton, speaking at the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s forum

The problem with the phenomenon of John Paton, Newspaper Publishing God, is that most people aren’t really paying close enough attention to what he’s doing and to what he’s saying.
The John Paton that gets all the attention is the guy who ordered Flip cameras delivered to every single reporter within a couple of weeks of taking the reins at the then bankrupt Journal Register chain. The guy who created the Ben Franklin project, ordering all his outlets to, for a single day, publish to print and the web using nothing but open source and free web services. The guy who extended the Digital First mantra to the more brutal, but direct “Digital First, Print Last” motto. The guy who reached into his old mentor Doug Creighton’s back of tricks and gave employees a week’s pay as a bonus when they hit an operating “profit” of $41 million coming out of bankruptcy.
That John Paton is simply the salesman, the pitchman - the huckster.
If any newspaper publishers are foolish enough to believe the hype and think that these steps were somehow responsible for the apparent and remarkable turnarounds his papers are seeing, if they believe that making everyone do video, or dumping Word or Saxotech for Google Docs is some kind of blueprint for digital success, they deserve the muck they’ll soon find themselves mired in.
Much of the talk about Paton focuses on those gestures, those jarring jumpstarts into the digital universe that he applied to the twitching JR corpse.
But in his candid presentation at last night Canadian Journalism Foundation forum he admitted those gestures were, essentially symbolic. He was giving them hope, getting them ready to accept, embrace, change.
When it come to the digital world - and the newsroom changes he’s making at many of his papers - he said quite blunty “we’re not very innovative”.
I’d disagree in this sense: he has apparently managed to grab the attention of his entire chain’s staff and management and focus them on the near future and the need to move where their audience lives - into the digital world. That may not be innovation, but that’s a huge accomplishment.
Which brings us to paying attention to what he’s doing and what he did before at ImpreMedia, the Spanish language media empire he built with Doug Knight.
His success there stood on two legs, he says:
Slashing fixed print costs (mostly by outsourcing), and opening his newsrooms to the community.
Here’s how he described his ImpreMedia success to Jeff Jarvis two years ago:

“More than two-thirds of any newspaper company’s expenses are in support of the core business of content, marketing and sales. Our digital competitors don’t have that two-thirds cost structure, so we attacked. it. We outsourced all printing, distribution and pre-press ad make up and page make up. We plowed a big part of the savings into expanding our digital resources – web, online video, mobile platform and widgets. We standardized I.T. We then outsourced the back end of all our digital support. Then we started cross-training journalists into one-person multi-media journalists – an ongoing process.”

Last night at the CJF forum he said his company is on track to cutting those fixed costs by fully 50 per cent by next year. Think about that carefully; that’s a lot of blood on the factory floor.
I’d like to hear more about how that works - how you can manage to outsource printing, distribution, IT and chunks of your business office etc and NOT negatively impact your product and your customer relations.
Because there’s no doubt that he’s taking his companies down a path we all* should have set upon years ago.
“If I was running a newspaper company in Canada I would be setting things on fire,” Paton said.

Anybody got a match? And a CEO to strike it?

(*Note: there is an important difference between most American newspaper chains and newspaper companies in Canada: debt loads. The Journal Register shed 2/3rds of its debt when it emerged from bankruptcy, but it was still carrying a quarter of a billion dollars in debt - servicing that debt requires very healthy profits. So the cost-cutting imperative is much louder than at any Canadian chain, except perhaps PostMedia, which is struggling with massive debts.)

Print focus kills newspaper sites

It is impossible to underestimate the extent to which our print focus is crippling our ability to transition to digital. We tweet breaking news. We shoot video. We live blog and post our stories on Facebook - we’re digital, right? OldHippie3
 We don’t have a clue.
If this was 1972, Canadian newspapers would be the 48-year-old with bell-bottomed pants, a tie-dyed shirt and fat sideburns crashing a college house party while insisting he’s “hip” and “groovy”.
Eighteen years after the Web was born and we are still devoting the vast majority of our digital resources to simply dumping print stories onto the web. Take a look at your web site: row upon row of navigation buttons or tabs, imitating the paper’s sections. A crowded, chaotic - but still static - mix of traditional stories (headline, deck, story) and undersized photos.
Where are the data sets? Where’s the conversations? Where’s the live mapping? Where’s the location-aware content? Where’s the location-aware advertising? Where’s my personalized feed?
We all do some of that, but inevitably it’s hacked into our site; we stretch and bend and break a structure whose true form and function is dedicated to the daily dump of print content.
Not surprisingly; the vast majority of our newsroom staff is fully focused on print.
If you look at any truly native digital news source (Huffington Post, Reddit, Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Techcrunch, etc. etc. ) you’ll find they all have a few things in common:
Their content runs in a stream, an ever-flowing river of embedded information, moving from the present inexorably into the past.
The user, the audience, can move easily up and down this river, backwards and forwards in time
Each item, each monad, is a doorway, a portal to a richer and deeper pool of related content
The content comes from … everywhere
They’re built this way because the web’s openness and freedom has ensured a kind of Darwinian survival of the fittest: services (sites, more or less) that meet needs survive and prosper, at least until something comes along that does it better.
We’ve survived this long with our anti-digital sites mostly because our monopoly presence in the analog world made us massively visible on the web. That won’t be good enough for much longer - especially as we lock down access with the so-called metered pay walls.
We need to build news services (based on a central aggregation site) that offer a continuous, programmed stream of content over multiple channels.
Last time I suggested building our site as a single river of news and information, one that allows us to curate outside content and conversations and add them to that main current of our ‘own’ news, video, images, charts, graphs and maps.
Research demonstrates clearly that people sip and graze information on the net, increasingly using multiple access points - phones and workplace desktops in the morning and afternoon, phones and tablets in the evenings and weekends - and that information needs change based on time of day, day of week, and increasingly, location.
We need to programme our river - think radio, not newspapers.
I suggested that this river be free and open to all, but that it “fall” off this “page” and into a paid archive - one that offers a hierarchical arrangement of the news, a la print - after a short interval of say, something like six hours.
We should ditch the damn banner and box ads and instead move them right into our river: make all our “ads” inline text and video that takes its turn in the limelight, and thus doesn’t destroy the ‘reading’ experience.
But all of that will fail unless we explode our newsrooms, destroy those pipelines running from reporters to editors to print production, and chart new paths. The information pipelines should run directly from journalist out to the community and back again and then we can curate the best of what results, for print and for our site.
Imagine if every journalist was assigned a beat - either organized around subject (e.g. Courts) or geography (a neighbourhood, a town). Require that journalist to create their own stream of original reporting, curated content and conversations focused on that beat (let’s call it a blog, although in every respect it should be a tightly focused version of the main site).
Content Editors would oversee that work, keeping the journalist on course and calling for extra depth or resources as needed. The web and print production teams would have the same job - curate all of those streams to create the primary web and print products. Print would need some rewrite people to stitch together running reports into coherent narratives complete with context. The web would need some journalists creating live content directly (events, conversations with the community at large etc). But otherwise, each production would be harvesting content from the multitude of newsroom information streams and packaging it in a way specific to their mediums and their distribution channels.
The more alert among you will notice that this structure has the potential to shatter the newsroom, and turn the majority of journalists into freelancers surviving on the quality, speed, and value of their beat content.
I guarantee you that if we don’t do it, the digital natives will do it for us.

(Cross-posted from my Shift Lock column in Newspapers Canada's The Publisher)

(Old hippie photo courtesy Jason Ralston, some rights reserved under Creative Commons, Attribution licence)

Another brick in the wall – but maybe a doorway too

It’s baaaack. Like Jack Nicholson smashing through the bathroom wall with a fire axe; only in this case it’s the accountants and consultants, and they’re not breakingHeresJohnny2 down walls, they’re building them. The pay wall is back, our walled garden of content. The soothing sotto vocce whispering inside our scared little skulls: “You are worth it. If they really liked you, they’d pay for it.” The frantic attempt to inflate value by manufacturing scarcity, instead of manufacturing value.
The very big boys down south - the Wall St. Journal, the New York Times, Boston Globe etc etc - and dozens of mid-sized and smaller papers are hiding various portions of their re-purposed print content behind metered pay walls.
Here in Canada the Post Media chain has called in the masons too, falling prey to their own fears and the blandishments of Steve Brill and the folks from Press+ (“Connecting Content with Commerce”). As I write this, my own organization has just erected a metered pay wall around our website with the assistance of the same Press+ folks.
There are glitches, and the wall can be thwarted by anyone armed with either more than one browser or knowledge of where their cookies live, but that’s no never mind - enough of the market targeted by this metering will simply accept the cost - and that makes it worth implementing.
In the short run.
The logic - and it’s borne out by research, Brill is a smart guy - is that since there is an admittedly small segment of our market (2 per cent? 7 per cent?) willing to pay for the convenience and speed of digital delivery of, basically, our print product, we should not leave that money sitting on the table.
Those willing to pay include: real fans who see the cost as a donation to our journalism; heavy users who simply see real value in the product and will pay to continue their digital access to it; and institutional users who can afford the sub-$100 annual bill.
Visitors to our site will get a warning and a sales pitch when they hit something like 35 articles in a single month and will get booted back to a non-clickable version of the home page after their 50th monthly visit.
There is no doubt it will reduce our visitor/page view counts. But since we can’t currently monetize all of our traffic (in our case our audience is about twice as large as our advertisers want to pay for) we can take the ‘circulation’ hit without any real advertising loss. In fact, the Press+ folks say advertising revenue should rise, in part because the audience is now more valuable - ain’t scarcity wonderful?
So why do I hate these systems and the folks who buy into them, when I have nothing but admiration of the incredibly hard work I see our circulation department doing as they fight to maintain our critical print subscriber base?
Is it because the system will annoy and anger the some of the most loyal, engaged and valuable part of our digital community? Yes. But it’s more than that.
I hate it because, as I said at the top, it’s trying to manufacture value by creating scarcity - when we should be finding ways to manufacture more valuable information.
It’s because at it’s heart these metered pay walls are designed by people who regard the ‘net as simply a different delivery platform - as if overnight an immense system of pneumatic tubes had sprung into being and we’d be fools not to use them to deliver the paper.
This is very much a backwards-facing strategy - and that doesn’t sound like such a good idea in a time of systemic disruption.
But there is one small ray of light, one opportunity I see.
The Press+ system is highly granular: it can sing and dance and cook toast perfectly. You can be very, very selective about what’s free and what’s metered.
What if you simply set it to charge for ANY access to your archives - period.
But here’s the kicker - your archives include everything printed in your paper once the paper’s out, and anything more than, say, six hours old.
Everything fresh is free.
I think this simple switch would give us a chance to truly cut the cord and put digital first.
Turn your primary address into a fast flowing river of news, a river that falls off the page and into your paid archives.
Next month I’ll offer you a detailed vision for how I think this would work and why I think this would work. For now let me set the stage with two suggested readings:

Worth Reading:

Tim Porter’s brilliant 2005 call to arms: Exploding the newsroom: Six ways to rebuild the system
MJ Siegler - How TechCrunch works

(Cross-posted from Shift Lock, my column on newsrooms and technology, for Newspapers Canada's The Publisher)

Are we doing too much online?

One hundred and ninety three. That’s the number of navigation links our website is displaying today … on its home page alone. Nearly two hundred clickable links, choices for you to make, that take you deeper into our site – or spin you off elsewhere in the chain where you can begin the link roulette all over again. 193 links. Hell, most days our newspaper prints fewer than 100 pages, it’s hard to imagine why we need all those links each day. Links to sections and subsections of content. Links to searches and sorts. Links to features and topics.

Continue reading Are we doing too much online?

Shut up so I can listen to you

Few things vex online news organizations as much as commenting does these days. Many sites find themselves flooded with obscene, viputerative, sexist, racist or just plain dumb comments that they cannot afford to properly moderate nor influence and which leave them despairing for the quality of their audience. Which is one of the reasons the Knight and Mozilla foundations are running a Beyond Commenting Challenge, hoping to unlock innovations in this critical piece of online

Subtlety usually dies just after civility

journalism and my god speed them on that journey.  (UPDATE: the contest has closed: I’ll cover the results

Continue reading Shut up so I can listen to you

The Future is now – so why is everyone facing backwards?

Back in 2005 my newspaper was lucky enough to be the only Canadian participant in The Learning Newsroom, an ambitious, 18 month-long, million dollar, newsroom culture transformation experiment. At one point we were asked to describe what the newspaper of 2015 would look like: how would it function? what would it cover? etc. etc. At the time, I had been reading Harvard prof Clayton Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma: When New Technologies Cause Great Firms to Fall and luxuriating in the outpouring of ideas and creativity bubbling out of the web developer community.

The past is somewhere you’ve been –

Continue reading The Future is now – so why is everyone facing backwards?

Now that the seas seem calm – launch the lifeboats

It was only last summer that researchers presenting a State of the (Canadian) Media report offered the cautious suggestion that newspapers’ decades long slide in market penetration might finally have hit a “floor” or at least flattened for the foreseeable future in the 30 per cent neighbourhood. Frankly, to me it sounded like whistling past the graveyard; an excuse for managers to keep their heads down and focus on cost containment while keeping one eye on the retirement clock. 

Don’t wait until you’re sinking to launch your lifeboats

But to many it seemed a not unreasonable conclusion – especially

Continue reading Now that the seas seem calm – launch the lifeboats

Witness: a news column for this century

News doesn’t happen in newsrooms.  Funny, you’d never know that to look at one. Walk into your average newsroom today – even your ravaged, post-layoff and voluntary departure newsroom – and you’ll see an awful lot of reporters sitting at their desks and trying to sweet talk other people into doing their job for them.

Witness will not be done by phone – although it may be livestreamed by one. Witness will be just that – a journalist giving witness to the things he saw and heard and said. The goal will be to come into the office

Continue reading Witness: a news column for this century

What should a news column look like in the age of Twitter?

(If you’re in a hurry, you can skip the Intro and jump straight to the pitch)


Returning to reporting after a 3 year, 148 day long adventure, first in web and digital training and then in CMS wrangling, I find myself pitching for a spot as a daily news columnist.

And desperately needing some help.

It’s not the writing, I’ve done this job before – in fact the first job I ever had on a daily newspaper was as a news columnist for the Toronto Sun – it’s not the writing I’m worried about.

But here’s the thing

Continue reading What should a news column look like in the age of Twitter?

What’s a story worth today?

Journalists have long viewed their jobs as a calling, and sometimes even a noble one; we’re the fourth estate, democracy’s oxygen, our cities’ commons and our nation’s conscience. We crown prime ministers and topple despots, raise up the unsung heroes that walk among us, lay low the villains that beset us.   It’s a wonder we were ever able to fit those fedoras on our heads.   Newspapers are floundering online at least partly because we not only believed those myths about ourselves – but we knew them to have some grounding in reality.   Sometimes our work does

Continue reading What’s a story worth today?

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