Young, innovative journalists need not fear life after j-school. Rhiannon Russell explains some lessons that Digital First Media CEO John Paton explained at last week's CJF forum that could help those just starting out in the industry, including how to tell a newspaper boss that "you're doing it wrong."

 

“Print is dead.” It’s a phrase every journalist – especially those in the newspaper biz and in j-school – has heard countless times. For those j-students, such a statement may seem daunting. But just because the world of print may be shrinking, that doesn’t mean a career in journalism is impossible to get off the ground.

While some of us (myself included) shake our heads when we hear sentiment such as that, feebly protesting that people love to read a tangible paper rather than scroll through stories on an iPad, others are working to create and develop innovative ways to give people the news they love in an array of new media. John Paton is a prominent member of the latter group.

CEO of Digital First Media, the second largest newspaper company in the United States that — as the name suggests — lauds digital first and print last, Paton is one of these “print is dead” heralds. But rather than disregarding him, you quickly realize he’s onto something.

Paton was speaking at the Canadian Journalism Foundation’s panel on Thursday night with Douglas Knight, president of St. Joseph Media. The topic was this  digital first strategy Paton has developed and implemented across 800 digital and print products in 18 states.

The interesting thing about Paton is the web is not his native news habitat. “I’m a newspaper man,” he said. And so was his father. “The first hands that ever held me had ink under their fingernails.” 

He’s worked in print journalism for 36 years and has been everything from a copy boy, to reporter, editor-in-chief, general manager, publisher, and finally, to chief executive officer of newspapers and their online counterparts alike.

So for Paton, this is a “gut-wrenching struggle” for him as much as it is for us. But, he said, the customers have spoken, and we just aren’t listening. “The solution to our future is sitting under our noses,” he said: Embrace the web.

He offered some interesting advice for young journalists trying to break into the industry at a tumultuous time.

Paton said the idea that you have to start at a newspaper in “the boonies” and work your way up, hoping your uncle has a connection at the Globe, is no more.

He put huge emphasis on startups, telling J-Source associate editor Belinda Alzner that large media organizations should pair up with smaller startups – like OpenFile for instance. The startups and large media organizations have what one another need: Innovation and audience, respectively. 

“I think the issue is going to be the valuation,” he said. “Everyone thinks they have something of value. Startups have yet to prove it; large media companies are loathe to lose it or share it. And therein lies the problem of transition.”

Audience member and UBC journalism professor Alfred Hermida asked if Paton had advice for how young tech-oriented journalists who start working in what Paton calls “legacy” newsrooms can say to their bosses: “You’re doing it wrong.”

Besides joking that they be fleet of foot, Paton said that if he was in a young journalist’s shoes and he encountered resistance to innovation from the newspaper’s staff, he’d quit because “what I want to be is an effective journalist.”

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He recommended that newspaper editors “put the digital people in charge. Of everything.”

Though journalism students are told often that their future is bleak, Paton is optimistic. He said journalists are just as important as ever. “I think quality journalists are the best citizens in the land,” he said. Our role isn’t changing, but the way we must work is.

So far, Paton’s strategy has worked. He took over the Journal Register Company in 2010 after it filed for bankruptcy the year prior. The site now boasts: “The company’s more than 350 multi-platform products reach an audience of 21 million Americans each month.” Digital First also operates MediaNews Group, a company even larger than the Register.

Other components of Paton’s strategy: In Torrington, Conn., there’s a newsroom café that’s open to the public. He also created the IdeaLab, in which the company provides staff with a new tech gadget and 10 hours of free time per week to experiment with said gadget – plus an extra $500 per month.

The only rule is they must report back to Paton each month “on ideas and developments they believe would benefit our Company, employees and the communities we serve.”

As well, online stories have fact-checking boxes next to them for readers to submit corrections.

One thing Paton stressed was that journalists no longer hold a monopoly on the news. “We’ve accepted that we’re no longer the gatekeepers,” he said. “The gate is forever open now.”

Audiences are now as participatory as media outlets themselves, and Paton said combining our traditional journalism with participatory journalism is an “unbeatable combination.”

In Alzner’s interview with Paton, he discussed re-purposing newspapers for the web: He’s not very impressed by that.  “It’s a bad idea. It’s an ass-backwards idea,” he said.

This is why Paton said it’s vital for new organizations to have a social media presence. “Newsrooms must share their content,” he said. It appeals to viewers and readers in a non-traditional way.

So that means, whether we like it or not, out with the old and in with the new.

For more on how Canadian newspapers are doing digitally, why Paton blogs about his strategy, and why reporters are being asked to do too much, check out Belinda Alzner’s exclusive interview with Paton.