Jim Brady Reflects on WaPo, ‘Blown Up’ TBD and the Do or Die Future of Local

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Combine digital community journalism and the New York Jets? Jim Brady might call that heaven. The longtime leader in online journalism and hyperlocal endeavors (though he avoids the term hyperlocal) seems to expend as much Twitter juice on the finer points of the team’s play as he does on crowdsourcing the news. But just barely. Fact is Brady is one of the most recognized editorial leaders in online news going back to washingtonpost.com (the first time … ya know, in the ’90s) then AOL, then Washington Post 2.0, next TBD and now the Journal Register Company. Before he gets picked up by the Jets as a mid-season PR QB, I thought it a good time to catch up.

You went back to the washingtonpost.com  several years ago. What were some of the high points and low points building both an online news destination and local properties?
That was an amazing experience. As a kid whose favorite movie growing up was “All the President’s Men,” it was great to have spent so much of my career at The Post. We won many awards I’m proud of: the first national Emmy awarded for web video, a Peabody, a Knight Public Service Award, a handful of Murrow Awards and many others. I was very proud of our work on packages like Being a Black ManOnBeingFixing D.C.’s Schools and on our coverage of Katrina — we won that national Emmy for that — and the 2008 presidential election. I’m also proud of having changed the digital newsroom culture from one that was relatively conservative to one that embraced new ideas and the risks that came with them. I thought the staff needed to better understand the business side, technology and other things journalists were not normally expected to understand. Just about everyone embraced that idea, and the site was better because of it.

You took on the startup TBD, a hyperlocal effort, a couple years ago — what were your initial goals going in?
The goal going in was to create a whole different kind of local site, one that rejected the old way of doing things. We wanted to collaborate with the community in meaningful ways, not merely by allowing them to upload pet photos. We wanted to serve the audience well by pointing them to anything and everything relevant about the Washington D.C. region, which meant pointing to competitive websites. We wanted to be all over social media and mobile, since that’s where our audience is increasingly spending its time. Basically, there wasn’t any one new feature we invented, we just wanted the whole package to look and feel different than most anything that had been seen in local. I was very proud of what we launched, and of the team we built. Based on strong pageview and unique numbers, it seemed the audience liked what we were doing too. And we managed to build that audience without spending a single dollar of marketing money in the region. So I thought that was pretty impressive, even if the folks in corporate had other ideas. The fact TBD won a Murrow Award for best local news site was pretty satisfying, though the project had long been blown up by the time that was announced.

Local sites are not easily scalable. For local sites to be good, you need local bodies.

At TBD were you mandated to create a model that could be replicated by your corporate owners?
That was certainly the idea, yes. If you could make it work in DC, then the hope was that it might be replicable in other cities. I’m not sure whether that would have worked, though. Local sites are not easily scalable. For local sites to be good, you need local bodies. So while you can centralize some back-office functions, the core journalism can’t be easily scaled.

Recently you were hired as editor in chief for Journal Register Company … What exactly is your role now? 
The role is really about setting overall editorial strategy for all the papers across the JRC chain, which includes determining what new content areas we want to explore, what partnerships we want to pursue and getting Project Thunderdome — our centralized team for non-local content — launched. So I spend much of my time working on those topics. But, maybe most importantly, the job involves doing whatever I can to make sure our papers cover their regions as effectively as possible. I just finished a tour of all JRC dailies, and was really impressed by the dedication and commitment I saw for our digital-first strategy. So doing whatever I can to feed and support that enthusiasm is crucial.

You have placed “hyperlocal” in the buzzword box in past. How do you imagine making sure community news is part of Digital First Media (a new group at JRC and Medianews)?
Community news has to be a part of JRC, or we’re doomed as a company. We don’t have national papers. The only way we’re successful is if we cover the hell out of our communities. That’s the idea behind Thunderdome: Free up everyone we can to work on local, because that’s not just our bread and butter, that’s our whole meal. If we’re using local resources to produce national and international news, we’re doing something wrong. So Thunderdome deals with that by centralizing the resources that will produce national and international news, which frees up the local newsrooms to focus on local, local and, when they have time, more local.

Is Paton a big proponent of community news?
Absolutely. And, let’s be honest: If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t be here. John was a fan of TBD, and wrote some nice things about it after the bottom fell out. We started talking after I left, and he made it clear that there was room at JRC for the kinds of things we were doing at TBD. So part of what I want to do in this job is use some of those same strategies around community engagement, social media, mobile, geo-coding, etc. Some of that was already in the works when I arrived, which is why JRC was such a good fit for me.

And what exactly is “Digital First Media”? Sounds like a marketing campaign rather than a business unit.
Totally disagree. “Digital first” has been the stated strategy for JRC since John’s arrival, and it led to a $41M profit and a extra week’s pay for every JRC employee last year. The strategy has worked and has been emulated by plenty of other companies since John took over. So “Digital First” has been central to JRC’s success. Why not carry that name with you as you charge ahead?

The only way we’re successful is if we cover the hell out of our communities.

You’re a proponent of database-driven journalism. explain how that might take shape in your new role…
Yeah, I’m a huge believer in data journalism, and there’s a tremendous amount you can do with it locally. There are your basic datasets of crime, school test scores and restaurant closings that we can and should build across all our localities so that they’re available at any time to the audience. Then there are situational databases that you can build to support a story or series. One of the reasons I was so proud of Fixing D.C.’s Schools when I was at The Post was the perfect marriage between the very strong series that ran in print and the deep databases we built on the web. The print stories told the 30,000-foot story about issues in D.C.’s schools, but the data provided the ground-level view of what was going on in those schools. It’s one thing to read another series about the issues with D.C.’s schools, but quite another to find out that asbestos reported in the ceiling of your kid’s school nine years ago still hasn’t been removed. Data, just like words, photos and video, can tell a story, and we need to get as much of it on our sites as possible.

JRC has jumped into the popular daily deals/coupon game with your “Hot Deals” program… is that something that’s likely to be a big part of the future community news product?
Can’t say I’ve been involved in the daily deals effort at JRC, so can’t speak much to that. But, from a local standpoint, I don’t think there’s any doubt the concept has legs. First off, it’s a new way for local advertisers to engage with us, and all media companies desperately need new non-banner options for local advertisers. So that’s good news. But it’s not the silver bullet, it’s just part of the solution. So we have to remain militant in looking for new advertising opportunities as well.

On the revenue side for local news: Do the audiences exist to support the ad dollars you will need to generate?
Absolutely, but you have to keep your costs down to do it. That’s the thinking behind something like Thunderdome. We can’t have people at 18 different papers finding, editing and paginating a story about the war in Afghanistan, or a movie review or a Wimbledon roundup. We have to find a way to provide that information centrally to our papers so that they can focus on local issues and coverage. So if we’re smart about how we use our resources, and keep working with the local advertising community on new ideas and strategies, I don’t think there’s any doubt the money is there. But if you’re primarily a local site and have 300 people in your newsroom, I think that’s a tougher road, since I don’t see the print business recovering in any meaningful way. So you have to be small, nimble and open to new ideas, which is the same mindset that most new local news startups have. If we can match that mindset, then we’re in good shape, since we come with a built-in audience and advertising relationships.

Is the strategy to increase “feet on the street” sales forces?
Well, I don’t run advertising, so I’m not the best person to ask that. But, obviously, any local sales operation worth its salt has to have feet on the street. But, as I said earlier, any local news organization needs to have multiple revenue streams to be successful, so it can’t just be that.

Are you guys looking at partnering with blog networks or local bloggers to gather news?
Yes, and we were doing it long before I got here. We partner with more than 1,000 blogs across our properties through our Community Media Labs initiative. Just as it did at TBD, the community is providing us with content we would never otherwise have, which makes the experience of visiting our sites richer and more satisfying. We want to continue to partner with local bloggers and media companies to provide our audience with the best experience possible. That was a core part of the strategy for TBD, and think it should be the same here as well.

Rick Robinson’s Turf Talk column appears every Wednesday on Street Fight. Follow him @Loclly