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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.)

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