#16 – Jim Brady talks digital first, sustainability and fearless journalism

Journalism’s demise is greatly exaggerated.

At least, that’s how it looks from where Jim Brady, the editor-in-chief of Digital First Media, is standing.

“I was just saying to somebody in New York yesterday, there isn’t one person sitting in this newsroom in Thunderdome that thinks journalism is dead,” Brady said, referring to Digital First’s shared-services team based in New York City.

Jim Brady of Digital First Media

Jim Brady, editor-in-chief at Digital First Media, talks about Project Thunderdome on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Megan Cloherty)

“Not one,” he said. “Everyone of them knows it’s going to make it. They don’t know exactly what it’s going to be and how it’s going to get there, but none of them are sitting there gloom and doom.”

As one of the pioneers of new media, first at WashingtonPost.com and then TBD.com, Brady has heard all the negativity about journalism’s future.

“I’ve been to too many conferences where the tagline of the conference should be just ‘We’re all going to die,’” he joked.

“I’ve been to too many conferences where the tagline of the conference should be just ‘We’re all going to die.’”

But with his current venture, Project Thunderdome, which launched last July, Brady is helping to build a different type of newsroom — one that can thrive in the digital environment.

“The goal of Thunderdome is to restructure the costs of a traditional newsroom that makes it sustainable going forward,” Brady told It’s All Journalism. “We talk a lot about how all the tools of journalism are improving the actual quality of journalism and opening up all these doors for storytelling that we never had before, but we spend not nearly enough time talking about the financial underpinnings of the business. Cause you can build all the great stuff in the world, but if you can’t afford it, you’re pretty much dead.”

New model for journalism’s future

Brady credits John Paton, CEO of Digital First’s parent, the Journal Register Company, with originating the idea of the Thunderdome as part of JRC’s three-pronged approach to uniting his company’s chain of 75 daily and weekly newspapers and their accompanying websites.

Jim Brady and Michael O'Connell

Digital First Media’s Jim Brady, left, talks to It’s All Journalism Producer Michael O’Connell on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Megan Cloherty)

“It’s got three core components to it,” Brady said. “The first core component, basically, tries to make sure that newsrooms are focused on local. Cause in the end, our local newsrooms are going to live and die based on their ability to cover their communities, not their ability to have foreign and national news in the paper.”

Under a traditional newsroom model, all 75 papers might end up writing 75 versions of the same story, such as the news of Paul Ryan being named the vice presidential candidate.

“What if you replaced that with one person who really knew politics?” Brady asked. “Who’s layering in related links, links to Ryan’s voting record, a photo gallery of his life and putting together a really smart package about Paul Ryan and making it available to all 75 papers? Now they have better content than they had before, and they didn’t spend any time locally doing that.”

By sharing coverage, each newsroom begins freeing up reporters to cover other, more local stories.

Read the full transcript of It’s All Journalism’s interview with Jim Brady.

The second part of JRC’s strategy is to marshal the company’s resources to create vertical sections in areas like technology, health or education. The newspapers’ 75 websites draw in 60 million unique visitors, attractive numbers for potential advertisers and sponsors.

“We want to start building out … new verticals that we can roll out across all of these papers and automatically be able to go to advertisers and say, ‘Hey, we have a health section that reaches 50 million uniques a month. You want to buy?’” Brady said.

Wanted: Fearless journalists

The third piece is Project Thunderdome, which operates as a shared technical and reporting resource for the entire company, sort of a Special Weapons and Tactics team.

“I want people who understand that failure is not something we’re afraid of. Many of the pieces of Thunderdome will fail as we go forward, and the key is just pushing forward on the ones that don’t.

“We have a lot of newsrooms, again, not that big, who can’t afford to have database journalists, who can’t afford to have development resources, can’t afford to have curation, can’t afford to have video,” Brady said. “And so, we’re building teams in New York that can basically dive in and help any of the local newsrooms when they need help on something.”

Thunderdome’s expertise might be called on the put together an interactive element to illustrate a dataset or even bring in extra reporters to cover a big story at a local paper.

“Everybody that we interviewed for a job at Thunderdome, we basically told them, ‘You have to be ready to stare into the face of complete change and understand that the job you’re taking today might not be exactly what it’ll be in six months,’” Brady said. “‘There’ll be plenty to do, but how this is going to play out may not be the way we think it’s going to.’”

To staff Project Thunderdome, Brady sought out “fearless” journalists, who were willing to try any new tool to do something different. “I want people who understand that failure is not something we’re afraid of,” he said. “Many of the pieces of Thunderdome will fail as we go forward, and the key is just pushing forward on the ones that don’t.”

Jim Brady on staffing Project Thunderdome

Editor-in-Chief Jim Brady tells It’s All Journalism that he was looking for ‘fearless’ journalists when he staffed Project Thunderdome. (Photo by Megan Cloherty)

Last September, JRC appeared to have its first brush with failure, when Paton announced the company was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in order to restructure.
“Shedding legacy costs basically describes it in three words,” Brady said

JRC had gone through a similar filing in 2010, before Paton was CEO.

“I think anybody who works at the JRC will tell you, one, they were terrified when they heard that news, and, two, nothing has changed in terms of the operations of the JRC side of the company since it was announced,” Brady said. “We continue to hire. There hasn’t been any brakes put on anything that we’re doing since that was announced.”

Not sinking but swimming for shore

In discussions about the sustainability of newsrooms, the subject eventually turns to paywalls.

“I know there’s this growing thread that says, ‘Well, if more and more papers are going to paywalls, it must be the right answer,’” Brady said. “My response to that is always, ‘Because a lot of newspapers are doing something digitally, why would everybody think that was the right answer?’ We don’t have a great track record in terms of doing the right things digitally.”

“This is not a helpless strategy. This is an offensive strategy that says, ‘We’re going to get to a place in which we’re going to build a new structure that’s sustainable.”

JRC is not paywall free. It has 23 that became part of the company when it started managing MediaNews Group last year.

Even so, Brady does not see building a paywall as a long-term strategy for a newsroom hoping to survive in the digital realm, especially if you’re looking to monetize your content on other websites.

“I think it’s a fine strategy for today and next week and maybe the next couple of years, but if you’re really trying to take advantage of the Web itself, you’ve got to stay pretty open, in my mind, and you’ve got to be able to build audience and you’ve got to be able to get people from all over this Web,” he said. “They call it a Web for a reason. It’s all about connections, and the minute you put the wall up, even if it’s a meter, the connection is a little bit broken.”

That’s the reason why Brady is so excited about the Thunderdome model.

“Instead of sitting here and hoping the water will recede or, just cutting, cutting, cutting the newsrooms until you have nothing left to produce a product with, our strategy is we’re swimming for something,” he said “We’re swimming for shore here. This is not a helpless strategy. This is an offensive strategy that says, ‘We’re going to get to a place in which we’re going to build a new structure that’s sustainable.’ And, hopefully, it’ll work and others will follow.”

Michael O’Connell

Jim Brady is the editor-in-chief of Digital First Media, where he oversees Project Thunderdome. He’s a frequently tweets (@jimbradysp) on Twitter about the future of media and, sadly, by his own admission, the New York Jets. Brady is also the president of the Online News Association.

Read the full transcript of It’s All Journalism’s interview with Jim Brady.

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5 Comments (click here to leave a comment)

  1. Observer

    You say, “Under a traditional newsroom model, all 75 papers might end up writing 75 versions of the same story, such as the news of Paul Ryan being named the vice presidential candidate. ”

    That’s not really the case. All 75 papers (unless one of them had a local connection to Ryan) would run the Associated Press story available to them through the company’s account with the AP. All 75 writing their own version of a non-local story wouldn’t be the “traditional model,” at least not in the past 20 years.

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