Those “dimes,” he told them, would come from new sources of online revenue that JRC had never produced or sold before. Meanwhile, Paton told his audience, he would slash infrastructure costs. He would soon shut down most of the papers’ printing presses, mailrooms, and circulation departments, either outsourcing these operations or consolidating them to one paper in each geographic area. And staff members who were particularly adept in digital content or digital sales would be promoted.
“I went in knowing what I wanted to do,” Paton says, explaining that in his thirty-five years in the news business, he’s seen print people in charge, print and digital operations segregated, and print and digital integrated. “The only thing I know that works is to put digital people in charge of all of the efforts to understand how news today is created and consumed.”
Paton remembers finishing his presentation and being met with silence. Several hundred employees in the audience stared at him—a slightly short, stout man with a short-trimmed white beard and blue eyes that are both friendly and intensely focused. He says, “They were like, ‘Who’s the fat guy in the front telling us that we’re broken? Who the fuck is he?’”
Paton, fifty-four, admits he has been called “arrogant,” his tone “dismissive.” But he attributes that to a conviction that comes from having seen the industry from every angle. Before joining JRC, he was the co-founder and CEO of ImpreMedia llc, a chain of Spanish-language newspapers and websites. Before that, he worked his way up through the Canadian media, from a copy boy job at the Toronto Sun as a teenager, to publisher of Sun Media, with a dozen reporting and editing jobs in between.
With his message delivered, his “Ben Franklin Project” was the first major move to demonstrate how drastically he could cut production costs. The company-wide experiment required each JRC daily newspaper to put out one day’s issue—print and online—using only free online tools. Some of the tools were probably familiar (Google Docs, YouTube, CoverItLive), but others weren’t (the photo-editing tool gimp, the page-layout design program Scribus). Paton says he planned it for July 4th so JRC could “declare independence” from expensive proprietary software. When Paton first took over as CEO, he had estimated that he would need to spend $25 million of the company’s cash to upgrade its technology over the ensuing eighteen months—just to keep JRC functioning. He says that after “Ben Franklin,” the company was able to cut and re-negotiate vendor contracts, which played a large part in the reduction of that capital expenditure bill down to $12 million.
But “Ben Franklin” wasn’t just about software. Newsrooms were also encouraged to get costs down for that issue by soliciting as much user-generated content as they could, using social media and “town hall”-type events to invite readers into the information-gathering process. Many editors said that giving the project a company-wide deadline made the difference between talking about innovation and mandating it. “The result turned out to be marvelously profitable in the end for us but the most important thing we got out of it was culture change,” says Paton. “My guys are afraid of nothing.”
Another ongoing JRC experiment is the centralization of production of non-local pages among the chain’s daily papers, so that each paper’s editor won’t have to select which AP wire stories will go on the “nation” page—one editor per state, or several states, can do it. The idea is to free up newsroom staff to focus on producing more local content—which in turn will attract more online traffic—without hiring more reporters. Content consolidation also includes partnerships with outside companies. JRC teamed up with The Street, a finance website, to share content and ad revenue, for instance: JRC provides local business stories to The Street, and The Street gives national ones to JRC.