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.

One ideaLab participant, Ivan Lajara of Kingston, New York’s Daily Freeman, says that sometimes his paper’s experiments are successful and sometimes they aren’t. In April, Lajara used CoverItLive to capture reporter Patricia Doxsey’s live tweets from a murder trial, and hundreds of readers participated in the discussion online. In addition to attracting traffic, the readers, in turn, helped Doxsey shape her coverage, as she learned what her readers found most interesting. Another experiment, the scannable quick response (QR) codes Lajara printed in the Freeman that would call up videos on readers’ smartphones, proved less successful; with only a handful of hits, he decided it wasn’t worth the effort. But he says he’s excited by this new freedom to try things “without having to go through twenty layers of bureaucracy.”

Such projects all had the goal of getting JRC papers in the habit of doing more with less, of drastically increasing the amount of content on their websites without increasing newsroom staff. That surge in content had the goal of bringing a larger audience to each site. And the growth of the audience, in turn, has the much more pressing goal: attracting advertisers.

The Next Newsroom?

If Paton’s staff stared blankly at him when he made his JRC debut, to a person they express enthusiasm about the direction the company is heading in. Mark Ranzenberger, online editor at The Morning Sun in central Michigan, says that the past year at JRC has shown him something he hadn’t experienced in the previous two decades. “It is the excitement of trying something new,” he says. “It is the challenge of a boss giving you permission to try stuff—and that has not been part of the culture of newspapers that I have seen.”

Perhaps none of JRC’s experiments has gotten as much industry attention as The Register Citizen’s “Open Newsroom Project.” Situated in Torrington, a small, ex-manufacturing town in northwest Connecticut with a population of about thirty-six thousand, the six-thousand circulation daily is what Paton says is the model—both business and architectural—for all of JRC’s newsrooms in the future.

Torrington’s newsroom resembles a public library or community center as much as a newsroom: it has free-access “blogging stations,” microfilm machines with the paper’s archives hooked up to a printer (also free) for genealogical and historical research, and local art on exhibit. Its conference rooms are available for local organizations to hold meetings, and reporters and editors teach classes all week on topics like online publishing, social media, and video.

Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner