On the Front Lines  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   March & april 2011

On the Front Lines   

Former TBD.com honcho Jim Brady is helping the Journal Register Company reinvent itself for the digital age. Posted: Wed, April 27, 2011

By Jeffrey Benzing
Jeffrey Benzing (jbenzing@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     


They're building Thunderdome.

Digital guru Jim Brady has come on board at the Journal Register Company -- once plagued by bankruptcy, bad leadership and a toxic business culture -- with a mission to emphasize digital content while centralizing news production and getting more reporters on the street.

"A lot of people tell you digital is important -- talk isn't good enough anymore," says Brady, recently departed general manager of the locally focused TBD.com in the Washington, D.C., area and former executive editor of washingtonpost.com.

Last year, under the leadership of new CEO John Paton, Journal Register -- which is based in Yardley, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia, and operates 18 daily newspapers in the Northeastern United States, along with 154 Web sites and 172 nondaily publications -- increased its online audience by 75 percent. It also laid the foundation for Project Thunderdome, a companywide transformation from inefficient print production toward consolidation and digital storytelling.

Brady, 43, started on April 4 and has spent his first weeks sketching ideas with Paton, Vice President of Content Jon Cooper and Executive Vice President of Digital Content Arturo Duran.

The details of Thunderdome are still being worked out, but Paton -- who follows the mantra "digital first, print last" -- says it's a strategy to take the production burden out of the newsroom and let journalists focus on gathering news. Pages of national news and sports will be built once in a central location, instead of numerous times across the company at papers like the New Haven Register and the Trentonian. The idea is that each paper and Web site will have a stronger national news report, and each newsroom will be able to dedicate more staff to original local content, often with a multimedia focus.

"We have hundreds and hundreds of people in production," Paton says. "If you were producing 18 dailies centrally, you'd be doing it with less people and could then repurpose them back into the community and create more local content."

Brady says he was drawn in by the opportunity to innovate -- and the chance to try new ideas without first having to evangelize the company leadership. "There's no part of those meetings where you're going to have to explain to people what you're trying to do," Brady says. "You cut right to the chase."

Throughout his digital career -- which began 16 years ago last week when he was hired by the Washington Post to oversee online sports coverage -- Brady has seen audiences look increasingly to online content, often at the expense of print profits.

"The industry is being reinvented, and for a lot of people that's a bad thing," Brady says. "For me, any time you can be on the front lines of a total change in any industry you work in, how can that not be exciting? Obviously a lot of people have decided it isn't."

If profits don't follow the push to digital content, Thunderdome won't have worked. Brady, who doesn't yet have a title, says the project is a strategy, not an experiment, with the idea being to map out something new and see it through to the end.

"You're kind of going where nobody's really gone before. There's that phrase, 'The pioneers always get the arrows' this is not going to be easy."

Under Paton's leadership, Journal Register posted a 2010 profit of $41 million and started pushing money toward badly outdated newsrooms and computer systems. This is a company once notorious for buying community papers, gutting staff and failing to invest in what was left behind. Then-CEO Robert Jelenic had been known to fly to a city and fire a publisher without even leaving the airport. When he died of cancer in December 2008, some online message boards blew up with celebration.

Paton's style is a stark contrast. He favors collaboration and openness, he says, and when the company bounced from bankruptcy in 2009 to profits in his first year, he offered employees an extra week's pay, outlined in a blog post called, "I Promised -- You Delivered -- The Checks Are Cut."

This rebuilding from the inside is part of the pitch Paton gave to Brady. "I said he would have a ringside seat at a company that was really busted and broken down that was trying to remake itself," Paton says.

For Brady, Paton's leadership shows that a company's reputation can change quickly in the digital age, and also that he's serious about reinventing local news for a digital audience. In addition to Thunderdome, Journal Register has already implemented the Ben Franklin Project, which among other things challenged some papers to put out their product using totally free, open source software -- and on the Fourth of July, each JRC daily took a one-day shot at the challenge. Paton says the idea was to break the company's reliance on outmoded technology.

The company also has an ideaLab program that offers a handful of employees 10 hours of paid time each week (and a $500 monthly stipend) to experiment with new technology, something that will help determine where the company is headed, and ultimately what Thunderdome might become.

Now that Brady has taken the project's reins, he says he wants Paton, Cooper and Duran to stay heavily involved because they know the culture of the company and helped lay the project's foundation. And when it comes to hiring, Brady says he favors bringing on top talent and giving it a chance to find the best ideas.

"I like to hire as many 'A' players as I can," Brady says of his management style. "You never get penalized for trying something new that doesn't work."

Paton met Brady two years ago on a panel hosted by mutual friend and digital enthusiast Jeff Jarvis at the City University of New York, where Jarvis directs the interactive journalism program. Paton says he knew Brady's reputation and tried to get his attention -- his strategy was to lean over and say things he hoped Brady thought were funny. After the panel, they exchanged e-mails and phone calls, and when Brady left TBD.com last November, Paton posted a blog on hyperlocal news that praised Brady's work.

They met for lunch in Philadelphia this February, and two hours later found themselves with a common enthusiasm for the future of JRC. After a couple more meetings, Paton says he realized he had found someone with a vision. Brady says he's found the backing he needs to make it happen.

"The rug's not going to get pulled out on this project," Brady says. "It's got endorsement from the top down."

Brady was crucial in starting TBD.com in 2009 but left last year because he says Allbritton Communications Co. did not give the site a chance to grow with its original focus. Prior to that, he spent four years overseeing washingtonpost.com, following a four-year stint at AOL and previous work managing Web sports for the Post.

"Jim's work at the Washington Post shows that he's got the journalistic chops," Cooper says. "And then you look at what he did at TBD, and he's got engagement and audience chops too."

He also brings a well-stocked iPod.

"Every once in a while, we just play 'Thunderstruck' by AC/DC to go with our 'Thunderdome' theme," Cooper says.

Brady says the jobs he looks for are those that force him to hit the ground running. And innovation in the news industry is something he takes seriously. To him, the newspaper is like the Titanic -- a luxury item that is badly damaged and sinking fast. He sees digital content as a smaller, maybe less extravagant vessel -- but one that floats.

"You accept the fact that it's a smaller boat, and it's not going to be as nice," he says. "But why wouldn't we want to get on the one that floats as opposed to trying to save something that's fatally ruined?"

JRC continues to increase its online audience and serves a total cross-platform audience of more than 15 million. When Thunderdome is implemented this fall, the company is hoping its increased focus on newsgathering will continue that expansion. The challenge comes in ensuring long-term profitability.

"When it comes down to it, we have to figure out the revenue side of this," Brady says. "Anything that paints a rosier financial picture is an innovation."

And finding that right innovation is something many news outlets are struggling with. To Brady and his Journal Register colleagues, though, the thrill comes when there's a problem to solve and a white board in a room with nothing yet on it.

"I think he's cut from the same cloth" as the rest of the top Journal Register executives, Cooper says. "You know it's gonna be hard work. You know it's gonna be long hours, but damn it's gonna be fun to get done."

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