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.
A renewed emphasis on cheap, simple videos was the next step in Paton’s plan. In a much publicized blitz, Paton handed out a thousand Flip cameras, encouraging JRC reporters to post videos for every story they wrote and encouraging the sales staff to monetize them. (That investment also required the purchase of hundreds of new computers, as most of JRC’s old ones lacked the memory, or even the USB ports, to accommodate the cameras.) JRC is producing a thousand videos a week, and it has plans to launch a “JRC TV” site to stream videos from across the chain later this year. Paton attributes 10 percent of JRC’s digital revenue growth to online video advertising.
These videos are unlikely to win awards—they might just be ten seconds of a wobbly view of cops standing around a car accident, or a nonsensical clip of a high school track practice. But editors say they are first trying to incorporate video into the daily routine; the quality, they hope, will follow. Emily Donohue, online editor at The Saratogian in upstate New York, says that she’s gotten positive feedback; her readers enjoy seeing themselves, their kids, and their town reflected in the videos. “We’re a community newspaper,” she says, “so that’s kind of our bread and butter.”
Paton encouraged his publishers, editors, and reporters to experiment with whatever might get readers clicking, watching, and engaged online. As an added incentive, Paton had his reporters and editors apply to be a part of the ideaLab, a small group chosen to get extra pay, equipment, and a few hours a week away from their daily responsibilities to play around with new web tools and methods for their newsrooms.