Six months ago, online news guru Jim Brady (formerly of TBD and washingtonpost.com) took over as editor-in-chief at Digital First Media with the mandate of focusing the newsrooms of the company’s papers on a, well, “digital first” model. That’s a large task that involves altering the long-established patterns of journalists countrywide and selling them on the advantages of the digital world.
Street Fight recently caught up with Brady, to talk about what it takes to win hearts and minds of veteran journalists, why the business side comes first, and why having a coffee shop in the lobby is so vital.
You’ve been in the editor-in-chief role for six months. How is it going?
I think it’s going well. It’s a challenge for sure to try to get as many publications as possible thinking in a “digital first” kind of way. Some of them are already there, especially the [Journal Register Company] ones that were under John [Paton]’s leadership for a year-plus. They had really gotten the message, and I think we’ve had a lot of success on the MediaNews side getting them to understand what digital can do for your journalism and, down the road, what digital can do for the business side.
The key is that you have to get to all of these places. You have to really explain to them all the underpinnings of the strategy. You can’t just say to them “digital first” and expect them to be on board. You have to explain the business rationale. You have to explain what it actually means. How is the day-to-day journalism different? That’s a big part: education and explanation. At this point, we’ve gotten to 45 of the 75 dailies that we operate, and we’ll get to the rest over the next couple of months.
“If you don’t sell digital all together, print would be 100% of your revenue. But I’m not sure you’re better for ignoring digital.”
Has the Digital First mandate changed as you’ve gone to different publications?
You can see it across a lot of newsrooms. There are certain cases where either a staff or a certain person on the staff is not really on board with what we’re there to sell. In most cases, after spending some one-on-one time with the person, they come around.
I was just trading emails with someone who live-tweeted a meeting. He had never really used Twitter before, and he said it was good and useful. Now I look around, and he’s tweeted a fair amount. You have to be realistic about the challenges. When you see examples where someone uses the tools and it makes their journalism better, that’s a key. For “digital first” to work, you have to go into the newsroom and explain how these tools work and how they perform. If you don’t connect it to the work, no one is going to buy it. You’re never going to win that war.
Have you seen improvements on the business side?
John [Paton] is the best person to take to about numbers, but I think the most interesting thing to me is that the newsrooms want to know the business side of things. There was a long period of time where it was inappropriate. Now, newsrooms want to know. At this point, they can’t look the other way and say “It’s not my problem.” Honestly, the first 10, 15 minutes of my discussions in the newsrooms now is about that. It’s about the changes in reading consumption of the younger generation and how that’s going to translate to future generations and as such, here is why Digital First has to be the future.
It doesn’t matter what percentage of our revenue print is now, because it’s going away. I don’t think it goes away altogether, but certainly the share of audience is going down dramatically. It doesn’t matter how much money you’re making right now in a certain part of your business if you know all the trends are going the wrong way. Spending time laying that groundwork is important because a lot of newsrooms ask why we’re going to Digital First if print is 85% of the revenue. One of the answers is that if print is 85% of the revenue, then you’ve done a terrible job selling digital. Heck, if you don’t sell digital all together, print would be 100% of your revenue. But I’m not sure you’re better for ignoring digital. I think it’s important to walk them through that piece and then once you’ve explained that to them as best you can, you can get to the journalism part.
We’re looking for lots of different ways to get revenue online. There’s the line “There is no silver bullet, it’s shrapnel.” We’re trying to get revenue from a lot of different places. We acknowledge that and as such we’re putting eggs in a lot of baskets.
What is the status of Thunderdome?
We’re starting to roll out some verticals like transportation. We’re going to launch a health section in the next couple of days. We’re going to roll out one a month for the next six months or so. We’re starting to hire staff who are helping get it up and running, but it’s not in its full form yet.
Where is this going?
We have aggressive goals to grow traffic and grow audience. The way to build a business online is to collect a large audience. We’re heavy on engagement. John talks about this on his blog, but in the next year or so, many of the newsrooms are going to start having physical manifestations of engagement, whether it’s a community lab or a coffee shop in their building. We’re going to roll a whole bunch of those out in 2012.
Mobile is important. We’re building apps for all the publications. We have to get Thunderdome out the door. We’re redesigning all of our websites and all of our print publications. Between now and the end of 2012, you’re going to see one change after another. You’re going to see a very, very different physical look to our sites and our print publications. We’re also doing initiatives off the web as well.
How far along are you in the transformation? Can you give a percentage?
Thunderdome is going to be a huge part of what we do in the next few months even if it’s not fully rolled out. A lot of the products that we’re going to build out of Thunderdome are already in play and in the process of being built. We’re bringing in a new content management system that’s already in half the JRC papers and it will be in the Media News papers before long. What we have is a significant amount of large, game-changing projects in the pipeline right now. In terms of percentage, I don’t know, I think we still have 75% of the way to go before all of those things are out the door, but we’ve made a lot of progress in the last six months and in the last three especially.
Noah Davis is senior editor at Street Fight. He previously covered media at mediabistro.com and Business Insider as well as during multiple stints of full-time freelancing. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, NYMag.com, Wired.com, SportsIllustrated.com, and many other publications.
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