John Paton on newspapers’ future

Two newspaper companies hired new chiefs last week. The Star Tribune hired Michael Klingensmith, my former colleague at Entertainment Weekly, and Journal Register hired John Paton, now head of Spanish-language publisher impreMedia and a newspaperman with roots in Canada. The latter didn’t get the attention it deserved.

Paton has executed a strategic vision at impreMedia, turning it into company that truly puts digital first, hiving off functions that don’t add value and cutting costs to make the company sustainable (that’s the half of the budget that gets too little attention these days), and beginning to build a new relationship — including a commercial relationship — with the emerging ecosystem of news.

Klingensmith, on the other hand, is a big-media executive. I was disappointed that the Star Tribune did not take the opportunity of bankruptcy — or of this hire — to redefine itself. That’s painfully evident in Minnesota Public Radio’s interview with Klingensmith, in which he talks about print and portals. (Sherman: Stop messing with the wayback machine; it’s not 1999 anymore.)

Paton’s work is largely unsung because the product is in Spanish. That, I think, is why his announcement didn’t get as much attention. So I decided to interview Paton via email about his plans for Journal Register. (Disclosure: In our discussions about the future of news, Paton has become a friend and an advisor for the CUNY J-school and my entrepreneurial class.)

JARVIS: What did you do at Impremedia to make it a sustainable news company in the Hispanic market?

PATON: The first thing we did was to decide that in our company, a print company, when it came to products we would be digital and brands first and print last. It was our radical way of focusing everyone on the future. By recognizing our competitors and our future were digital everything we built and did had to follow that decision.

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.

The second decsion was we would let the outside world in. We would share our content for free and we would play with anyone who wanted to play with us – mainstream media or bloggers. That led to our relationships with ESPN, AOL, MySpace, etc. And our launching of the Community E-Journalism Labs in Los Angeles and New York where we said we want to work with entrepreneurial journalists and help them make a living. We have opened up discussions with companies like SeeClickFix and Outside.In to augment our resources and let us re-allocate ours.

The third decision was that we would put in place a very strict protocol that follows the new news ecology of news creation and consumption. Every story of merit is first sent out as a mobile alert, then it goes to the web. After that our publications, editors and journalists use social media to push audience to the web. This process is repeated and enhanced all day with the addition of video and audio. The last step is the printed product. We are currently working to change that product to be a very different product which has to reflect how much of that story has developed and been consumed.

The result was in less than two years we went from 9 products on two platforms (print and crappy publications sites full of shovelware) to nearly 100 products on 7 platforms – with about 45% less costs.

* * *

JARVIS: What are your plans for Journal Register? What will a paper there look like in 1-5 years? Will it look like a paper?

PATON: JRC needs to enter the modern news age in a much more focused and vibrant way. That means the re-allocation of resources to a digital first and print last focus.

In my opinion, JRC is too much like most of the newspaper industry – closed to their communities and input from the outside world. They need to understand the papers and their online counterparts are just a part of the news ecological system.

One of the first steps will be to establish community E-Journalism labs in our communities where we have dailies. There is no way to be hyperlocal without harnessing the power of entrepreneurial journalists and the labs help do that by making content and more importantly sales arrangements with those entrepreneurial journalists.

Second step will be to initiate and, in some cases, expand relationships with companies like Daylife, Outside.In, SeeClickFix, GrowthSpur – any company that lets JRC expand its resources in content, audience and sales while allowing it to re-allocate and focus on its core business. I am very excited about ideas like explainthis.org and others that look at community crowd-sourcing for assignments.

The third step is to tackle the two-thirds infrastructure cost bucket.

Down the road print will change. I suspect the physical size will change and the print content will be much less “he said yesterday” journalism. The focus will become very local with national and international news procured from the very best sources. With so much of the breaking news on the digital platforms, print will become longer-form journalism complimented with vibrant opinion pieces to spark and facilitate debate of issues of importance to the communities. The online forums will expand and continue that debate.

Print will also become a much more malleable term expanded to mean the tablet versions of the actual print product.

* * *

JARVIS: I’ve argued that the future of news is entrepreneurial. Here you are, trying to update an institution. GIven the cost structure and culture of traditional news companies — and their failure, all in all, to reimagine and remake themselves for the digital age — what makes you think that it’s better to spend your time reforming an old company than starting a new one?

PATON: That is a very valid question.

Essentially, I believe that despite the traditional cost structure, the legacy companies do have a running head start with deep relationships with readers and advertisers and their communities. They have solid, if challenged, revenue streams and they are profitable. There are no technological or web content developments closed to them and they can harness that profit to change.

At impreMedia we proved legacy media can be changed.

Finally, while now only one part of the news ecological system, legacy media is an important part. Continuing the core mission of local journalism going forward on multiplatforms, profitably, I beleive. is an important mission for this country.

* * *

JARVIS: OK, now focus on one ecosystem — say, New Haven’s. Besides JRC’s paper and site, the Register, the town has The New Haven Independent doing good and pioneering journalistic work online. There are independent bloggers. There are students covering the university. There’s an alternative paper. There are new sources of information, such as data from government. There’s Spanish-language media, a market you’re familiar with. There’s broadcast. So once you focus the Register and its resources on its greatest value, what is that value? What should your news organization add to the ecosystem? Is it more than reporting? Curation? Community organizing? Education? What else? And what does this mean for skills a Register journalist should have?

PATON: The New Haven Register has a long and deep commitment to journalism in New Haven. It can trace its history through predecessor companies and founders to the Connecticut Gazette co-founded in 1755 by Benjamin Franklin. Some of the first newspapers in the country were founded in and around New Haven. They have always changed to survive and can continue to do so. But now only as one part of of the news ecosystem.

The Register can bring something most new competitors cannot to the party – resources. It has more advertiser relationships, more revenue, more staff and more profit than any of its competitors. It can harness those resources to make the kind of business relationships with entrepreneurial journalists and companies that are doing fantastic work in that community. By doing so it expands that work and will let the Register focus its resources on other initiatives.

This approach lets the paper, as a news organization, engage again in investigative journalism and in-depth reporting of issues of importance to the community. It lets the company’s journalists spend time data mining important government information and developments that may not necessarily be highlighted.

Re-allocating the Register’s resources to create compelling original content is one benefit but the ability to curate content and add resources to put that info in context is also very exciting. Those efforts will stimulate debate in the community and the paper will become a much bigger forum for that because of those efforts.

Importantly, this approach will let the paper re-connect or perhaps connect for the first time with constituencies that either don’t engage with the paper or perhaps feel disenfranchised by the paper’s current coverage and platforms.

* * *

JARVIS: Now please answer the same question from the business perspective: What will the the Register’s commercial relationship be with the ecosystem and economy of New Haven? There are all those entities above plus craigslist and local merchants’ own sites. You’ve already talked about making sales arrangements with entrepreneurial journalists (I say: bravo). Will the Register still compete with those other enterprises? Can it be a platform for their success — and how? At impreMedia, you’ve told me, you hived off distribution, enabling former employees to set up new companies that now serve not only impreMedia’s properties but also Impremedia’s (former) competitors. Do you see something similar happening with local papers? What will the heart of the Register’s own business be? What’s not core?

PATON: No legacy media news company can move forward and become hyperlocal, as it must, unless it harnesses the power of entrepreneurial journalism. And the only way to harness the power of entrepreneurial journalists is to make them your partner and help them make a living. The E-Community Journalism labs will strike content and sales relationships with community members. We will faciliate cross-publishing with some, ditto sales. Sales training will be important. The motto will be that if they win we win too. The Register, as can any community daily, afford to lead the way in these developments. No business deal works if it is too one-sided.

I believe it is important we use the power of our traffic to strike ad relationships with local merchants. By creating vibrant search directories we help drive traffic to the merchants’ sites and stores. Hitching those directories to the power of Google is a win-win for everyone. There are so many ways we can help ensure a vibrant future for the communities we serve.

It is still too early for me to know what outsourcing initiatives will be undertaken but I can say that in my past experience this has resulted in employees being set up in independent, vibrant and profitable businesses and working with our competitors to lower costs and drive profits.

The newspaper industry has been scelortic in its ability to change. It now must find the willingness to do so and become much more flexible than it has ever been.

* * *

Jeff, I should add to my comments I just sent you that I am still stupified at the amount of fear in the newspaper industry. I believe that fear has got to the point that it cripples critical thinking and action. More of the same with less is just prolonging a sure death. Thinking about change and implementing it ensures survival as news organizations….

One more, one more thing: Newspapers need to become fearless again about making their mistakes in public. We used to be good at that. We lost that along the way. The web and is ever self-correcting actions make for a fearless place of ideas.The industry has to find the strength to execute, fail and execute again, again and again. And we have to stop talking and start doing. We should remember our Ben Franklin: “Well done is better than well said.”

  • http://www.sunvalleyonline.com Dave Chase

    How refreshing! If Paton walks half the talk he’s outlined here, he’s going to be a beacon for the industry. The openness to partnering is something those of us in tech take for granted but is too rare with traditional media. I’ll watch with interest.

  • jojn garrett

    catchy to say print last…but where are the profits coming from? .and where will these stellar advertising relationships go when roi is gone because the print product is treated so poorly? And I can’t wait to see these entrepreneur journalists sell. Seriously where were these questions?

    • http://www.impremedia.com John Paton

      Jojn Garrett, I understand your questioning.
      Lot’s of folks are trying these things and not everyone is succeeding.
      And, of course, the truth is no one has a magic bullet solution.
      I think the key is what Clay Shirky has said about nothing will work and everything will work. I take that to mean you have the nerve to try everything you think will work.
      When we fail we will have to try and try again.
      Saying ‘Print Last” is not treating the print product “so poorly”. Not changing the print product to reflect how the new news ecology works is, to my mind, treating the print produt “poorly”. Local journalism doesn’t happen only in print.
      I realize this is just me talking. I urge you to follow what we do at Journal Register and judge for yourself. JP

  • http://ehgazette.com Bill Doak

    Scelortic? I believe the word you are looking for is sclerotic, as in hardened and unable to change. Before an executive decision was apparently made to cannibalize over 150 weekly newspapers in order to shore up the flagging operations of its daily newspapers – in the mistaken belief that printing every day somehow made these publications sacrosanct to investors and inviolable to the corporate identity – I was the editor/photographer/editorial writer/webmaster for one of JRCs hometown newspapers. Executives were paid cash incentives for the supposedly arduous task of closure of weekly newspapers. In truth the JRC executive who signed my separation agreement never even bothered to visit our town, and might have had difficulty locating it on the web.
    Far from being bitter, I am grateful to JRC’s corporate myopia. I was a loyal worker. But in giving me zero resources of my own – I even had to buy my own computer for my desk – they did me a big favor. They forced me to be self-reliant and entrepreneurial. Everyone laughed when I suggested modeling the daily newspaper not on other daily newspapers but on the role of the weekly newspapers in their community, and making each newspaper website as unique as the community it serves.
    So, as ex-JRCers, we founded our own weekly newspaper media services company, and now publish not one, but two community weeklies, with accompanying websites which we also own outright. And we did this all without borrowing one dime. January 22 will be our one year anniversary. Mr. Paton sounds like he is on the right track. A pity it took coming through the fire of bankruptcy court for this overhaul. Many, many fine people were shed along the way as multi-million dollar bonuses were distributed by the JRC board. The S&L scandal, Enron, Madoff, Merrill Lynch and global financial problems are vastly bigger than the troubles of the media. There will always be retooling of editors and reporters in how to do their jobs. What passes for knowledge in America’s business schools is where the fundamental flaw rests.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      Bill,
      That’s wonderful.
      Now the question is whether you and JRC can work together (e.g., on ad sales) to mutual benefit. That would be a shift, eh?

  • Pingback: Lesetipps für den 12. Januar | Blogpiloten.de - das Beste aus Blogs, Videos, Musik und Web 2.0

  • http://www.impremedia.com John Paton

    Bill, it may take a while, but the new JRC will certainly want to work with entrepreneurs like yourself. Call me. I start Feb. 5th. Regards, J. Paton.

  • Pingback: Ideias sobre o futuro : Ponto Media

  • Tex Lovera

    “Newspapers need to become fearless again about making their mistakes in public. We used to be good at that. We lost that along the way. The web and is ever self-correcting actions make for a fearless place of ideas.The industry has to find the strength to execute, fail and execute again, again and again.”

    This is absolutely true. Unfortuantely, in too many markets, the monopoly paper has long-standing biases (not just “political”) that they feel must continue. Exposing those biases to the self-correcting light of truth would result in too many sacred cows being gored.

  • Pingback: John Paton e o futuro dos jornais | pjmartins.com

  • Pingback: Singleton’s next chapter: Can he steer MediaNews to a digital future? » Nieman Journalism Lab

  • http://www.jimthorpepa.com Curt Jackson

    Wonderful interview.

    The only valid question remains, where does the revenue come from to maintain the digital and print side,, if print becomes secondary?

    Cost cutting only gets you sar far. I have worked for one of these companies (JRC) and supply products to the other (impreMedia)

    “Digital Media” has a revenue stream that is a FRACTION of print.

    I agree with Mr. Paton that future print products MUST be hyper local with news. I agree that managing and selling the BRAND is part of the move forward. The problem keeps coming back to the fact that the digital side does not have a revenue model that can pay for its own operations.

    If the folks at the “Politico.com” web site can only make money by starting a print edition what does that tell you about the “Digital Media” revenue model?

    It will be very interesting to see how all of this evolves over the next few years.

    I wish Mr Paton the best of luck with JRC. My first newspaper exsposure was delivering a paper now owned by JRC. It is my home town paper. I would love to see it , (and the Brand) brought back to some measure of respect in the community.

    Curt Jackson
    Vice President
    SCS

  • http://www.jseed.org Chip Kaye

    Debating Paton’s specific implementation choices is fair enough, but his motion overall is ELECTRIFYING, DETERMINED and VISIONARY. This may be the first truly sane response from inside the industry to Clay Shirky’s “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” http://bit.ly/KbvW8

  • http://www.dreamcycles.net lise strachan

    Dear John:

    Having worked with you I have no doubt that this new vision will come true. Best Wishes, Frank & Lise Strachan

  • Pingback: Today’s Stories

  • Pingback: Research digest (weekly) « Sho Tyz Inc.

  • Merja Lehtinen

    Writers, editors, web designers, business staff and sales people as individuals are very different in personality and I question if anyone can initiate the next generation of journalists be all those people in one role as mulimedia generators of knowledgeware. If you can it would be great, but the common denominator is going to have to be integrity. Smart young people want to make money and work in intellectually challenging fields, that is why so many flock to inbestment banking over journalism.

    As a journalist who started out in the write-to-print arena for McGeaw Hill weeklies before the rest of the industry was even automated, I recall our staff complaining we were tied to PCs and not in the field doing news gathering as editors and writers anymore. as a sales person later in life, I was stunned to see more sales folks in the field than reporters and editors. That is a real issue today. How many bloggers and e-business people are actually at the meetings, at non-publicized events and on the ground researching news other than at canned press conferences?

    The tools have to be employed to get the news hounds in the field and employ their thinking to convey research rapidly into worthwhile information for readers. But not so rapidly that they cannot afford fact checking. Otherwise, it is just faster garbage in and garbage out, he said, she said news.

    The model decsribed in your interview has been successful in the aerospace arena and at companies of excellence such as Hewlett-Packard and IBM, where employees have to be techie/engineers/knowlkedgeworkers and salespersons at the same time to generate as much as seven times their own salaries in sales.

    The secret ingredient in aerospace and at companies such as Hewlett-Packard, IBM, identified in the old book Search for Excellence is commitment to a common culture of trust and integrity with all stakeholders being committed to customer service and extreme product quality and safety as a road to profitability.

    If the news business can go back to that — there was a Camelot period when news ruled and journalists were the White Knights of business– the next generation of news CAN be more than just profitable but push our economy forward. Good luck. Someone has to save the news business; perhaps it can be a new JRC.

  • Pingback: ‘What Would Google Do’ with my old steeltown newspaper in Lorain, Ohio? Here’s what I’D do. | The Solomon Scandals

  • http://dcationpaintings.blogspot.com david cation

    yes but will we be seeing low rub ink in our future?
    David

  • Pingback: Kirwan on Paton – in progress « MediaBriefing Experts' Blog

  • Pingback: Peter Kirwan’s Long View: How to revolutionise your newspaper the John Paton way « World Media Trend

  • Pingback: The Gospel According to John Paton: Burn baby Burn « Breaking News

  • Pingback: Jornal Grande Bahia - Feira de Santana - Bahia