Brady on Thunderdome: The Glue at the Core Was Never Able to Dry

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digital-first-mediaIn his 19 years in digital news, Jim Brady has held three major posts that have made him a closely watched pioneer in the rapidly evolving new medium. He was executive editor of in its early, identity-seeking years. Next he headed up TBD, a bold-but-short-lived experiment by the owner of Politico to create a news site for metro Washington where staff journalists and community bloggers were relentlessly focused on engagement at both the neighborhood and regional levels.

Most recently, he has been editor-in-chief of Digital First Media, a sprawling chain of 75 daily and 200 weekly newspapers in 18 states that has struggled mightily to live up to its name.

At DFM, Brady oversaw Thunderdome, an attempt  to centralize the chain’s non-local news generation and production so that shrunken editorial staffs, aided by new data visualization, could focus on community coverage. Last month, DFM, burdened by double bankruptcies, decided to scrap Thunderdome. Ahead of his May 1 departure, Brady talked to Street Fight about the much-written-about news experiment and what might succeed it.

How many of the 52 Thunderdome editorial staff have found work elsewhere? Some examples?’
As of today, 14 of the 52 have accepted new positions, and one is going on a fellowship. A few others are mulling formal offers. I don’t want to steal the thunder of anyone who has not announced publicly, but a few have. Meg Wagner is going to the New York Daily News as a web producer, and Ross Maghielse has started as an editor at Bleacher Report. I’m sure the others will announce soon, and they’re going to some top-notch news brands. So I’m thrilled for them, and still looking to help the rest find exciting new positions. Anyone who has any to offer should drop me a note at [email protected].

Will they be pollinating versions of Thunderdome elsewhere?
Not specifically, I don’t think. No one, as far as I can tell, has accepted a job that involves working for a centralized news operation. But they will be taking the skills they displayed at Thunderdome and bringing them into dozens of other newsrooms around the country, which is exciting. While I think all the Thunderdomers hope to replicate the feel of being in such a talented newsroom, I don’t think any are eager to get back into a situation in where the exposure of their work is almost completely dependent on other entities. It’s frustrating to create something you think has value, only to see it get little or no promotion from the properties around the country. That’s not a shot at the papers; they have their own priorities and shrinking staffs with which to chase them. But, in the end, I think the Thunderdomers want to be somewhere where the actual publishing and promotion of their work is a little closer to home.

What attracts other publishers to the Thunderdome talent?
Every newsroom is looking for talented digital journalists, and when 52 of them hit the streets at once in a mega-market like New York, that’s an event. Also, sadly, this isn’t my first rodeo. When blew up, I tried to help those folks find positions too, and many have gone onto incredible things since. So there’s a perception out there that I hire good people, which doesn’t hurt. Ironically, though, it was really Robyn [Tomlin] who hired most of the team, so she deserves most of the credit.

One ex-Thunderdome journalist wrote in Zombie Journalism: “Thunderdome never even got the chance to carry out even the beginnings of our goals.” Is that accurate?
Yes, that’s pretty accurate. We were able to do some excellent work helping our newsroom on data, breaking news and visuals. But one of the major parts of the Thunderdome plan was the creation of channels that would drive traffic and revenue, and we had really just started launching those a few months ago. So while we were able to produce a lot of excellent journalism, the glue that was at the core of the Thunderdome model was never able to dry.

Outside observers said Digital First Media has “the wrong kind of investors” – that they didn’t have enough patience. Your thoughts?
The amount of time I’ve spent with our owners is very small, so any answer here would be speculation, and I try not to traffic in that if I can avoid it.

Jim Brady speaking at Street Fight Summit in New York, January 2013

You told Nieman Journalism Lab that the purpose of Thunderdome was to free up newspaper staff “to spend their actual staff time covering local news and embedding themselves in the local community — which they have to do to make themselves successful.” Did that happen?
Well, we certainly do not have more feet on the street than we did two years ago. But that’s more due to the sharper-than-expected decline in print revenue and the slowdown of digital growth that we’re seeing across the industry.

The idea was that Thunderdome would handle the non-local so that the local properties could focus on what they need to focus on to survive: covering their backyards. But we were not just there to serve a non-local mission; we were charged with helping newsrooms with local as well. And we did. We built crime maps for the Denver Post and St. Paul Pioneer Press. We worked with the New Haven Register and others on local data reporting projects. We managed partnerships with ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity where we got early access to their data to find good local stories inside a larger national story. We sent a dozen Thunderdomers to Newtown to help our Connecticut papers with coverage of that tragedy.

Community news doesn’t seem to have many friends among either new or old media publishers.  What do you see happening to news that’s closest to home and which 72% of Americans follow closely, according to Pew?
The local digital news solution is probably going to come from new players rather than legacy ones. It’s extremely hard to try and create that next-generation local news product while you’re dealing with the rapid decline of your core business. So I remain bullish that there’s a business model out there for local digital news, and there are a lot of people out there trying new things every day, and somewhere in that broad swath of experimentation are all the pieces for a successful model. It’s just a matter of time until someone finds the right mix.

I think finding that solution is just taking longer because, unlike on the national side, you don’t have massive scale. To cover your community well, you need resources inside that community. But you can be smart about how you position those resources, and scale the technology, design, etc. I also think mobile is going to accelerate that search for a good local business model. The 24/7 access to every consumer, the ability to use their location to deliver content and advertising and the two-way nature of that medium plays really well into the hands of local digital operations.

When you complete your work to place Thunderdome journalists elsewhere, what are your own plans?
I’m in no rush, so I’m listening to a few things here and there, and considering the possibility of starting something on my own. I will say that, if you’re going to leave a job, May 1 is a great date to do it.

Tom GrubisichTom Grubisich (@TomGrubisich) writes “The New News” column for Street Fight. He is editorial director of the in-development hyperlocal news network Local America that rates communities on their performance across a broad spectrum of livability — Local America Charleston launched this month.

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