local media insider

E&P Interactive Conference: Cut but paste

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The opening speaker at the E&P Interactive Conference, was John Paton, newly appointed (since March) CEO of the Journal Register company and E&P's 2009 Publisher of the Year.

Here's his challenge: The Journal Register was a frugally run group of 18 dailies and 150 non-daily papers that was over-leveraged and coming out of bankruptcy. Not the easiest ship to turn. But Paton has made a name for himself as a digital innovator at ImpraMedia, a large hispanic mediai company.

This morning he let fly one statistic that encapsulates the complexity of the task:

In 2006 Impra Media had nine products on two platforms.

In 2010 Impra Media has 100 plus products on seven platforms, and operates at 40% less cost.

In many ways the Journal Register company is just beginning down this road.

To reduce infrastructure costs, Paton has embraced open source technology. He took on the task of "freeing the newspaper from expensive proprietary systems" in favor of free, open source innovations with employee participation.

Called the Ben Franklin Project, a company web site promotes Paton's vision as a kind of Tea Party-like internal revolution, which may have had the technology suppliers suited up in the next ballroom rethinking their business model.

Paton mentioned one young employee who built a CRM system with his iPhone and Google docs.

You can find all of the strategies, although you'll have to build your own culture, at http://jrcbenfranklinproject.wordpress.com.

Here are some take-aways from Paton's opening comments:

*Put the digital people in charge.

"I've tried everything. I've been in charge of print, digital, integrated, in four countries and it never works. The print people have been at it for a decade and they are no good at it." Ironically, of course, Paton's own background is in print, but maybe he's too far up the food chain for it to matter.

*Digital first means print last.

"Print is slow and thoughtful, digital is fast" and ...not thoughtful, or at least not as well-thought out as after all the feedback from readers. Paton is one of the key thought-leaders in advocating reversing the news order so that stories go up first on tweets and other social media. Mobile first, then on to print, and, today the Journal Register is creating broadcast programs at the tail end of the news cycle, in partnerships that allow more revenue sharing.

*Work with aggregators not against them.

"I don't see aggregators as a problem. The problem is consumers who can't discern between credible journalism" and other online information." A refreshingly non-Luddite mentality. Jeff Jarvis is also on his Board of Directors.

*Research is expensive but necessary

"How do you know what to build if you don't know what people want? How do you know what they need if you don't ask them? And you have to ask them in a very detailed way. Its going to be expensive." This is a key, unsexy, reality.

But...aren't there also inexpensive ways to get instant feedback on both reader and advertiser preferences as local media make these complex decisions? Just a thought.

*25% of revenues will come from online in 3 to 4 years.

Because of the cuts, legacy media staffs will have to multi-task "in ways we never though possible" and if not, strapped organizations will hire people who can.

"There's going to be a lot of blood on the floor. Its is a difficult difficult change but one that is worth doing because of the benefit at the end of the road. This is about survival."

We know of one newspaper company that is already achieving 25% online revenues to display advertising revenues, so this target seems not only real, but maybe approaching even more quickly. Paton suggests the pace of the consumers and advertisers shifting to digital is being hidden by the economic shift towards recovery.

*Invest more in low-tech: better IT, laptops, broad band and flip cams.

Paton says his investment in giving the editorial staff $100,000 worth of video cams and 25% of their time off to experiment paid off in four weeks of pre-roll ad sales and grew traffic by ten times.

*Decide to become independent of costly systems that are out-of-date.

The organizational efforts to produce the news using only free web-based tools has had the fringe benefit of getting employees involved in producing technology solutions to everyday needs. "The real reason to do this is culture change".

One final note of interest: Paton says the best ideas in his organization came from the production and circulation departments.

Stop and think about this one. Production is already using technology every day to make practical decisions to meet hard deadlines.

At a newspaper, production managers also accommodate all the mistakes made at the front end of the funnel, and thus, well, care about how this stuff gets output quickly and efficiently, using technology instead of their own time with their families.

There are people in every organization that want "in" to the decision-making process and will help transformation take place. It's not all about editorial and sales.

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