#SFSNYC: Jim Brady on Building Engagement and ‘Stacking Digital Dimes’

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SW_20130116_NY_6350TBD veteran and Digital First Media editor-in-chief Jim Brady thinks that hyperlocal media must fill two roles for the reader. It has to be a water cooler — a place where people come to engage with news in a community — and an ATM, a utility connecting readers with actionable information.

“We’re good at the first one, and we stink at the other,” Brady told an audience during an afternoon keynote session at the Street Fight Summit on Wednesday. “Our newsrooms are all in this transformative stage. We’re trying to have a start-up mentality but be quick about recalibrating.”

Since bringing together Media News Group and the Journal Register Co. in 2011, Brady says his company has rethought nearly every aspect of its operations. That means finding efficiency in content creation by centralizing some parts, farming out others, and on the whole funneling its resources toward generating original local content.

“The bottom line is [that you’re] not going to be able to make the same amount of money as you did in print,” Brady told the audience. “You need to restructure costs.”

A big part of Digital First Media’s bet is Thunderdome. It’s the company’s New York-based content hub that pumps out national content to the 75-plus properties across Digital First’s network. By centralizing national content, Brady said, the company is able to focus its in-market writers on local topics.

Brady explained that his team builds its content around four categories: breaking news, engagement, enterprise and investigative reporting, and optimizing around Thunderdome. And if a property can’t offer all of these affirmatively, the team will think about restructuring, Brady said.

Deep engagement, in particular, is critical, Brady said. “It’s everything for us; the only way we’re going to profitable is high engagement,” he said. “ If your site only allows people to respond to what you’ve already done, you’re missing a traffic opportunity,” he added.

High engagement means moving past having just comments. According to Brady, 25 Digital First properties have some form of an open newsroom. That means editorial schedules are posted online each day, and in some cases the editorial meetings themselves are open to the public.

The takeaway here is that the newsroom will never be the same. Efficiencies can shave off certain costs but print dollars are never coming back, he says, so publishers need to learn how to stack their “digital dimes.”

Steven Jacobs is Street Fight’s deputy editor.

 Photo credit: Shana Wittenwyler