Blogs > 37th Frame

Photography, notes, commentary and much more from former Reporter Online Editor Chris Stanley.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

IdeaLab

For the past two weeks, I have been heavily involved with two major initiatives from our corporate parent, Journal-Register Company (JRC).

Now for those of you that know about the recent history of JRC, they weren't exactly known for such things as progressive thinking, investment in their properties and people, or financial stability. They cut staff, cut budgets, shut down presses (mostly by consolidating operations) and eliminated many under-performing newspapers. Web sites were cobbled together, internal communication was miminal, outdated technology failed.

How did this strategy work? Their stock plummeted to (literally) to nothing and the company went into bankruptcy (at least it was the good kind, which allows re-organization).

That was 2009.

Now, JRC has exited bankruptcy (with a much-improved debt situation), they changed much of the senior management, hired new leaders (including a CEO (more HERE) that some describe as a 'radical') and brought in a group of respected outside advisers to not just make the company profitable again, but to completely transform it from a manufacturer of print products to a major producer of content delivered on many platforms, especially digital.

So what does all mean to the readers of The Reporter (or the over 160 publications they own, including 19 daily newspapers in six states and scores of related web sites)?

It means that this company is finally staring down reality.

The number of print newspaper readers has dropped, here and everywhere. They're not coming back. Though many newspapers (including The Reporter) are still profitable, the expectations of our readers and advertisers are changing rapidly.

Newsprint may be fading, but the demand for local news and advertising is still very strong.

The big question - how do we reach people on new digital platforms (everything from web sites to web-enabled mobile gadgets), interact with them and actually MAKE MONEY doing so?

That's where Project Thunderdome and IdeaLab comes in.

Project Thunderdome (remember Mad Max?) is the code for nothing less than the complete transformation of JRC to a dynamic, customer-focused media company.
I know, that sounds corporate-speak, but what it really means is that if we don't find ways to provide content - ALL KINDS of content - to our readers, interact with them and make money by bringing local and national advertisers with us, we won't have any jobs in a few years.

Bad for us, bad for our communities, bad for democracy.

We are competing not so much with other nearby newspapers, but rather with every web site, every blog, every Facebook post, every Flickr gallery that carries local content we do not have.

Example - many high schools post dozens of football game photos on their web site, taken by parents or staff right after a game. The newspaper site posts 3. Who wins?

If you think about it, everybody on the Internet is a start-up. Whether TV, newspaper or web entities from blogs to that school site, everybody is searching for just the right formula to reach an audience and last more than a year or two. Some succeed, many do not.

But since we come from the world of print, we have all sorts of costs that other internet start-ups do not. Buildings, presses, trucks, newsprint - all those things that get a newspaper to a driveway each morning are very expensive. Also, our whole news cycle is built around a print deadline - get the story in by 11 pm, the paper is on the street at 5 am.

Digital demands are very different - constant news updates, instant access to archives, interaction, video, audio, links...the list goes on. And by the way, don't forget to format that content for web, iPhone, TV, refrigerator screen or whatever new gadget that will inevitably come out next week.

Thunderdome is about finding out ways to provide that content, build a loyal audience that sees us as THE place to find local news 24/7 (from many sources), and interact with that audience in a way that newspapers never could. If print can reach an audience and make a profit doing so, that can be ONE of the platforms. But just one.

On the business side, we must provide a clear path for advertisers to reach local audiences, and become THE place for them market their products and services.

All these things will require some pretty out-of-the-newspaper-box thinking, everything from mobile apps to reaching out to community bloggers to enable them to add their voices to our own content.

IdeaLab is another JRC initiative to figure out HOW we are going to accomplish this. The company picked fifteen employees (and three 'honorary' members) from the entire chain of 2,700 full-timers to take some gadgets, including a wireless netbook, an iPad and a smart phone, to figure out ways to change our culture from newspaper to media.

After a public competition, in which interested employees were asked to write why they wanted to participate, I was happy (and honored) to find out I was among those chosen for this project.

Participating in IdeaLab and Thunderdome is giving me a very up-close and personal view of a cutting-edge transformation that is being watched closely by the entire media industry. Lansdale is on the map!

I recently received my gadgets, and am already looking for ways to help our reporters spend more time reporting and less time babysitting a desk and phone.
Last week Lifestyle staff writer Brian Bingaman spent an entire day at the Philadelphia Folk Festival, walking the grounds interviewing campers, musicians and fest organizers. He used a Droid, a Flip camera and the netbook to record and upload a dozen videos, and even wrote his story for the print edition at the festival site and sent it remotely.

He never set foot in the office that day.

We turned his reporting into a blog, and added photos and more stories over the weekend. The day was not without some technical glitches, but we are experimenting, learning and actually having some fun.

I hope to use technology to improve our sports coverage this fall, from providing in-game score updates to extensive video and photo coverage. We are working with our sister publications around Philadelphia to provide complete coverage of all HS teams in District One, as well as enhanced coverage of Philly pro sports (one of the other IdeaLab members is Anthony J. SanFilippo from the Delaware County Times, who covers the Flyers for us).

Our advertising department already has designs on the iPad, if they can rassle it away from me.

Now, none of this will matter, of course, if it doesn't matter to our audience. So each and every idea will be scrutinized for the following:

- Does it help us do our jobs more efficiently?
- Does it help us reach our audience in a new or better way?
- Will it help us reach the goal of being THE local source of information and conversation in our communities?
- Does it help the audience participate instead of just reading or viewing?
- Does it help 'outsiders' join us to build a digital community?
- Does it help advertisers reach our audience quickly and effectively?

And I will be looking toward readers, family, friends, co-workers, strangers, anybody anywhere for ideas, new resources, cool web sites, suggestions, complaints - anything that help chart a new course. Despite my snazzy IdeaLab status, I know most of the best ideas are not in my head but out in the world somewhere waiting to be discovered and utilized.

I do not believe in the inevitability of the death of newspapers. Though we all miss the days of full newsrooms and morning deadlines, we now have a chance to re-invent this business into something just as useful, necessary and hopefully profitable.

Here goes!

1 Comments:

Anonymous Jay Gordon said...

Chris,
This column represents the first time I have heard any local media representative offer a realistic assessment of the situation you find yourselves in. I applaud you and your colleagues, and your new management, for finally acknowledging this to your audience.

I am also impressed with the steps JR's management team is taking to get back on track. They really are "thinking outside the newspaper box"; more importantly, they seem to recognize that the reporters, editors and photographers on the street are the ones who will lead the way in reinventing media. I agree, but your customers--both readers and advertisers--also have a vital role to play.

No one wants to see local media fail. But as we all know, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. I am encouraged that The Reporter and its sister papers finally seem willing to try something new and maybe even radical, and I look forward to following the progress of your "experimentation." As a lifelong resident of the Lansdale area, I believe I have a vested interest in your success, and will do what I can to help.

August 26, 2010 at 4:30 PM 

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