This is the first episode in a regular Monday series of articles I have been promising to write for some time. It is about innovation in journalism. That is, it is about how we might innovate in the core product of news organisations.
It is intended as a counter to what I have been describing elsewhere as magical thinking, or a cargo cult mentality among journalists and media leaders. This is the idea that if only we can discover the magical key, the new trick, then it will be possible for big companies such as Fairfax and News Limited to keep on doing pretty much what they have always done.
The magical thinking is understandable. Journalists and their employers have had a pretty good gig all these years. Privileged access to the means of publication has brought many benefits: big profits for our employers, access to the powerful for us, and the seductive pleasures of the gatekeeper. Why would we want to give all that up?
This is surely part of the reason why so much of what is described as innovation in our major news companies is in fact nothing of the sort. Take the iPad apps and the centralisation of subbing. The iPad apps contain no capacity for interaction, even though it is quickly becoming clear that the iPad is not only, nor chiefly, a reader, but an interaction device — the digital media equivalent of the telephone. Outsourcing or hubbing subediting is also not an innovation. It is a rationalisation of costs — doing the same things, but cheaper.
It was Albert Einstein who defined as insanity doing the same things over and over while expecting different results.
But every time I ask newspaper media executives about what innovations in journalism they are considering, I get either a blank response or a slightly aggressive: “What do you mean? Journalists ring people up, they talk to people. What else can they do?”
Well, yes. Finding out things through observation and talking to people is the core trade skill of the journalist, and always will be. But in case people haven’t noticed, there are a couple of new things going on, and a few new potentials that are relevant to the gathering and consumption of information, relationships with audience and the way the act of publication works.
The imperative for a new way of thinking about journalism arrived about 10 years ago now, but for the most part we haven’t responded.
I have adopted the title “What works?” The question mark is important.
I don’t know if these ideas will turn around the alienation and cynicism of the public from its news outlets, let alone convert into profitability and sustainability for news businesses. But I do know that while some things about journalism remain endlessly important and will be constants, simply doing more of the same won’t work, or not for stockmarket based companies under pressure to not only turn a profit, but grow profits.*
So the series will look at experiments and innovations from thinkers and practitioners here and overseas, as well as some things that have not yet been done but are being thought about. It draws in part from a recent research trip I took, as well as my personal trawling for reinventions of the craft that has formed the centre of my own career.
So to start off, to ground the series in commercial reality and, to reinforce its general optimism, I want to talk about a newspaper company that only a few years ago was not on anyone’s radar, unless it was as a poster child for the ails of the industry in the US.
In 2009, The Journal Register Company was broken — in bankruptcy, regarded with cynicism and disgust by its audiences, clients and, saddest of all, by its employees.
Yet just a couple of months ago, the CEO was able to announce that the company was not only in profit, but had exceeded profit expectations. Its ad performance had been three times better than the industry, and its classified ad performance was six times better than the industry. Auto and Employment ads were ahead of the previous year. All this in the current dire US economy.
That’s right. It has turned itself around. Unheard of.
So what happened? What worked?
The Journal Register company is comparable to Fairfax. It too has a handful of flagship publications including the New Haven Register in Connecticut and The Oakland Press in Pontiac, Michigan — and an extended network of daily regional and rural publications, as well as 185 non-daily publications mostly in Connecticut, Philadelphia, Ohio, St Louis, central New England, and the Capital-Saratoga and Mid-Hudson, New York regions.
Individually, the mastheads have relationships with their communities that go back, in several cases, more than 100 years. One of the company’s old printing presses is thought to have been used by that great enlightenment figure, Benjamin Franklin.
The Journal Register also has a recent history of corporate mismanagement, corporate infighting, demoralised staff and the racking up of debt.
The path to its rock bottom moment will sound familiar to Australian audiences. The Journal Register group is the remnants of the Ingersoll family newspaper company, which went down in the stockmarket crash of 1987. An investment company stepped into salvage what it could, and tried to grow through acquisition, buying up more titles and commercial printing companies through the 1990s, creating geographical clusters that allowed the cutting of staff and the hubbing of content. The company was floated on the New York Stock exchange in 1997 and continued to acquire, and slash.
Some of the mood of the operation could be judged from its principals boasting to the market that they checked the amount of film the photographers used, check odometer readings in employees’ cars against expense accounts, and locked up the supply cabinet “because people would be stealing tape to take home for Christmas presents.”
Journalists called in on a weekend to cover a big news story — an oil spill — had their overtime claims questioned. News was increasingly hubbed, leading the American Journalism Review to comment in 1999 that:
“The casual reader, or a new subscriber, would not necessarily detect gaps in news coverage at JRC papers. They might just find them boring … From time to time, a reporter breaks out of the mould, or a news event produces dramatic coverage. But day in and day out, the news stories are predictable, the features are canned, and there are few idiosyncratic local voices — columnists, reviewers, essayists –to be heard.”
Another company executive described the time he spent with the JRC as the worst period in his long career. “I can live with cautious people looking to cut fat, but not bone and muscle. That’s what JRC does.”
Needless to say amid all this cost cutting, the JRC had failed to innovate online. Its web pages were woeful, token efforts.
None of it helped. Saddled with debt, the company went bankrupt.
And that’s when the hopeful story begins. The JRC was bought out of bankruptcy, and became a private company with all the licence to innovate that that implies. Newspaper man John Paton was installed as CEO and has since become recognised as one of the truly inspirational news entrepreneurs of our time.
Paton adopted the motto Digital First. The old model, he said, was broken. Rather than mining the premium position of print, instead the only asset the media company had to put it ahead of new media competitors was its relationship with its audience. That, and the creativity of its employees.
The first thing he did was to harness his demoralised staff. When he had been in the job for just three weeks, in February 2010, Paton gave Flip cameras, capable of shooting and uploading video content instantly, to every employee.
All publishers, editors and sales directors were given copies of Jeff Jarvis’s book What Would Google Do?. Paton toured the entire company, from the smallest regional publication to the flagships. He announced a profit sharing scheme. If the company could turn itself around, he pledged, the results of that would be shared with its staff. He told them:
“If we do this right we will become a company of ideas where all employees and our communities debate what’s best for our future.”
He started a blog — called Digital First — where under an unadorned WordPress banner he engaged in a constant inspirational yet amazingly bullsh-t-free dialogue with employees, clients and audiences.
Then he began to completely recast the way the company worked. In a nice nod to historical roots, he called it the Benjamin Franklin project.
It was a technology project, but not only a technology project. Most particularly, it was NOT about spending millions on the purchase or development of whiz-bang new proprietary tools. It was focused, not on delivery mechanisms for their own sake, but on what the technology was good for.
The idea was to use the web to allow the public to actually assign the journalists. Paton wrote:
“Yes, the reporters will still report and the editors will still edit. The difference in the Ben Franklin project is that the journalists will be accountable throughout — not simply after the story reaches deadline and is delivered to the audience. The staff members involved in the Ben Franklin project will ensure their reporting process is transparent so as to encourage full participation from the audience. Reporters will document their news gathering online thus providing the audience opportunity to question, guide and join the process.
“All of this will start with the assigning process. To truly engage our readership we must know they are interested in reading, watching and consuming what is reported. The legacy measurements of circulation, sales and even the modern metrics of unique visitors and page views only measure reader interest after the fact. By providing a platform where users can suggest stories, vote for story assignments and/or contribute (information, sources, data, etc.), the Ben Franklin Project will create an open-sourced assignment desk. And, the process will continue as readers track story developments online. Stories that not judged worthy by the audience could be dismissed while those that may have been dismissed under a legacy model could find new life.”
In April last year, Paton set a group of his employees a challenge — of creating a web and print product in 30 days using only freely available open source web-based tools, and seeking help from the community to do it. They met the challenge. And so it was that on July 4 2010, he declared Independence Day.
The company had, as Paton put it, used crowd and cloud to make itself independent of expensive proprietary systems that were out of date almost as soon as they were deployed. The technology was not seen as separate from the news gathering. It was the means of news gathering, as well as delivery. The technology was used to re-imagine the relationship to the audience.
On that day, all of the company’s daily newspapers and their websites were sourced, produced and printed using only free web-based tools — a first in US newspaper publishing history. The websites were now modern, lively and rich in video and audio content as well as text.
But it was not only a matter of new delivery mechanisms. Through the use of the tools, the mastheads had been brought into a direct relationship with their audiences, involving them in the production of the paper from the story ideas, the research to the result.
The tools that were used, and are still being used, in the Benjamin Franklin Project are listed here.
And here are some of the news projects that they enabled:
- The Middletown Press crowdsourced story ideas, asking its readers to let it know where the worst roads were, the most dangerous incidents and worst intersections. It also asked its readers to nominate the best place to grab a burger at 3am. And the results were mapped using Google Maps.
- The Morning Journal used Twitter and Facebook to crowd source questions for the mayors of two local towns inviting audience to imagine themselves as the city hall reporter of the day.
- The Perkasie News-Herald held a town hall meeting to solicit story ideas, and used UStream to broadcast the meeting for those who couldn’t attend. About 25 local residents came along, which resulted in a news story about their concerns over the cost of the local trash system.
The JRC was not alone, of course, in crowd sourcing story ideas. Even Australian media companies have done this in a small way. What was different was that crowd and cloud were now central to the business model, the production process and the journalistic method. This was not an add on, a mere comment box at the foot of a story. It was Digital First.
Meanwhile the advertising and sales departments were keyed in, also using free tools to create and track advertisements, and listening in to what the communities were telling the newspapers about their concerns.
Another innovation was the fact check box — a rebellion against the idea that readers should have to work to contact a reporter or editor about an error. Instead, a prominent red box labelled “Fact Check” appeared on the home age of the Register Citizen, an 8000 circulation paper serving Litchfield County, Connecticut. “See wrong or inaccurate information in a story. Tell us here,” says the headline at the foot of each story, and below is a text box where people can enter error reports, which go straight to the publisher and the editor.
Paton began another project, the ideaLab, in which employees competed to offer suggestions for innovative journalism and publishing. The winners were given 25% of their paid work time to mess around with iPhones, iPads and netbooks, and report back on how to apply them for the business. The motto for ideaLab is “there are no rules”.
By now, The Journal Register Company was getting favourable attention, mentioned by Roy Greenslade in the UK, and the Poynter Institute. From poster child for what ailed the industry, the JRC had gone to company to watch.
The most daring innovation — and the one that most alarms the editors and journalists I have mentioned it to, came just last November.
The Journal Register began opening its newsrooms to the public. It started with the Register Citizen in Torrington, Connecticut — a former mill town of about 40,000 people.
A cafe was established, not on the street side of the security barriers like those on the ground floors of The Age and the Herald Sun, but right in the heart of the newsroom.
On the first day, more than 100 people showed up. It was more than had visited the paper’s old newsroom in the previous year combined: The Citizen reported:
“They used free public Wi-Fi to surf the web on laptops and iPads. They shared stories about the Flood of 1955 while looking at an exhibit of photos from our archives. They looked up birth announcements and police blotter items from 1923 and 1974 on our microfilm machine. They updated their blogs in our Community Media Lab. They talked to reporters about stories that aren’t being reported. They told the publisher about missed deliveries and typos. They sat in on our daily story meeting. And they drank 75 cups of coffee and ate 88 muffins, brownies, pastries and pieces of coffee cake.”
The newsroom cafes offer more than just coffee. There is free Wi-Fi access, free computer terminals and, perhaps the most potent drawcard of all, free access to 134 years of newspaper archives and a modern microfilm machine, including free electronic and paper copies for people researching their family and community histories.
After years locked up in the back room, the news library has been used every day since the cafe opened. It’s a potent example of how a legacy media organisation can use its history to engage the audience in the present and future.
It’s worth saying at this point that in Australia newspaper companies have failed to invest in gaining the kind of metadata that would allow their archives to be easily harnessed. Archives have been variously locked up behind paywalls, or neglected. Instead, the opportunities of a digitised historic, searchable public archive have been taken up by the National Library of Australia Trove project on a not for profit basis. It’s good for most of us. I love Trove! But for Australia’s older news organisations, it is a lost opportunity to exploit an asset.
The Journal Register newsroom cafe also includes a community journalism school, where free lectures are given by the paper’s reporters on subjects such as the meaning of the first amendment in the US Constitution, or the uses of Freedom of Information Act. Classes are free, and broadcast live on the paper’s website.
The cafe has also become a community meeting space, available free of charge, and was used in January by the local congressman to launch his Senate campaign.
But perhaps most radical of all, the core business of the newsroom takes place in full view of the public space. News conference is held in the open, with the public invited to sit in, listen and participate. The news conference, too, is broadcast live on RegisterCitizen.com.
Journalists I have told about this, object “but what about if you have a scoop? How do you avoid tipping off the opposition?” This raises another point that I will address later in this series. Does being first still matter? And how much? And if it does matter, for how long does it matter?
My guess is that in the new media world, if you are first with the news you will be on your own for about three minutes. Or else ignored because the competition doesn’t want to acknowledge your scoop. But that’s another topic for another day.
The early activity in The Journal Register’s newsroom cafes suggest that they have helped the community to feel in relationship with their once despised local news organisations like never before.
And because the news organisation is networked to its community, because it is the actual and virtual site of community business, it becomes the premium place for advertisers to be.
One can only imagine what the same model might do to some of the sleepy, complacent and neglected-by-head-office publications presently run by the Rural Press arm of Fairfax media and other media companies. Yes, they are as yet relatively unaffected by the digital world, but how long before citizens take them on with lively, home grown websites? And how much loyalty can they expect to have from readers and advertisers if they don’t lift their games?
So all this is very exciting. But what about the bottom line? The Journal Register company is not a charity, but a for-profit enterprise
Last month, John Paton announced to his employees that, while the goal had been to hit $40 million in profit in 2010, that target had been exceeded. Profit was $41 million. Under the profit sharing arrangement he had promised during his first days with the company, they would all be getting an extra week’s pay.
“Not bad for a bankrupt, beat-up old newspaper company people had written off as dead in 2009,” he said.
The company is now producing 4000 minutes of original local news video a week with those flip cameras handed out in the first weeks, and there are hints about a forthcoming JRC television organisation.
Paton told his staff:
“You proved your commitment to journalism is at the core of what we do and if the communities we serve desired journalism on the platforms of their choice, you could deliver. And now we produce so much more than print. In 10 months this company has gone from nearly zero video to producing about 1000 videos a week and 2 million video streams monthly. From almost no digital ad orders to more than 1000 orders per month.
“You proved you could ask for help and turn your audience, armed with smartphones and computers, from competitors to colleagues as they stepped up to blog, fact check and suggest stories the communities wanted covered. And you proved you were willing to throw open your doors to invite them into your newsrooms.”
Paton has presented, spoken about and tweeted his core insights into the news business. He begins with a simple insight quoting Clay Shirky, of New York University, he says:
“If the old model is broken, what will work in its place? The answer is nothing, nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.”
The message is that you must not tweak or tinker. You must start again.
And if you do that, “as early evidence has shown at The Journal Register Company you can build a new and better house from the foundations of the old. And quite frankly now, if we can make the needed changes, we will have a sustainable competitive advantage against most start-up competitors … Leverage the power of the print audience to build the new platforms of choice. And create a new business model that allocates resources solely on the new news ecology”.
Among Paton’s insights is this: “Stop listening to newspaper people. We have had nearly 15 years to figure out the web and as an industry we newspaper people are no good at it. No good at it at all. Want to get good at it? Then stop listening to the newspaper people and start listening to the rest of the world.”
JRC still has print products, but its thinking has become Digital First — not as an add on or a necessary evil.
In this upbeat story, there has been pain. There has been outsourcing. And there has been cost cutting. There was, in the early months, blood on the floor as Paton refocused the company.
And Paton acknowledges that there will be no return to the rivers of gold that newspaper companies used to sail upon. JRC had to hit rock bottom before it could go up. But he doesn’t see that as cause for despair.
“If print dollars are becoming digital dimes, then we better start chasing the dimes. And we better do it cost effectively.”
The majority of The Journal Register’s revenue is now digital only, rather than bundled with print. In several areas, digital revenue gains have replaced print losses.
Compare this to the Australian newspaper industry, where although digital revenue is growing fast, the lion’s share of income is still bound up with a printing press.
The difference between what JRC has done and our own newspaper organisations’ mining of their premium position is that JRC has correctly identified the key asset arising from its history, not as position but as relationship. And it is using a technology that is all about relationships to build that asset through every aspect of journalistic method.
By becoming the hub of community conversations, it has also become the premium manner in which advertisers can reach that community.
The JRC is an example of the kind of attitude it takes to innovate journalism. But it is not the only kind of innovation. More next Monday.
Next episode: Games people play.
* What works? is also the title of the next New News 2011 conference, which will be organised by the Public Interest Journalism Foundation,, which I chair, in conjunction with the Melbourne Writers Festival in August this year. The dates for the diary are August 26-27.)