For all the talk of growing online content and ads at JRC, the truth remains that 85 percent of all of the company’s ad revenue still comes from print—as is true for the industry average. Paton says he is confident that ratio will shift, but in the meantime, it’s a delicate balance that JRC has to maintain: putting its staff’s energy into the digital side of operations without neglecting the print side, where the bulk of the money is still made. So at the end of a long digital day, publishing news as it happens, in the new JRC model, short to long, fast to slow—SMS alert, tweet, web post, web feature, photos, and videos—what does the print product actually look like?
“Most of our editors are veteran print people, and we’re learning as we go along,” says Daily Freeman publisher Ira Fusfeld, who has worked at the paper since 1970. “It’s a lot of fun, but it’s posed challenges to us. What can we put in print that’s different from the web, with a staff that’s no greater than it was before we had a website?” Not to mention the fact that having the Freeman’s print operations moved offsite means that their daily print deadline is three hours earlier than it once was.
JRC editors say that if a story has been online all day and it’s about to go into the next day’s newspaper, ideally it will be filled out with more context and additional sources. “When I started at the paper I never thought I’d work on a story today and it would be old today,” says New Haven Register city reporter Angela Carter. “We have a product that comes out ‘tomorrow.’ And so I’m thinking now about how to keep things fresh, and how not to have my stories look like yesterday’s website.”
They also say cross-promotion between print and online is key. Just as print stories feature icons indicating that they have accompanying videos online, which drive readers to the website, websites also promote special print sections—a full-color pull-out Phillies schedule at the start of the baseball season, for instance, to encourage single-copy sales of the Delaware County, Pennsylvania Daily Times.
When asked about “Digital First,” Marshall Genger, one of Paton’s business partners from ImpreMedia, characterizes it as a useful catchphrase for an industry mired in tradition, but not as a literal business model—because you have to protect the bottom line, print. “Where ‘Digital First’ really takes traction is, in the newsroom, people need to be thinking differently,” says Genger. “And the only way you will get folks who never thought about anything other than the print side of the business, to get them to even recognize that the digital world exists, is to say, ‘you gotta think about this first.’ Only so that they can really think about it at all.”
How Much Time?
Paton is being invited to a lot of conferences these days. This spring, he spoke at the Newspaper Association of America’s “mediaXchange” conference in Dallas and the paidContent conference in New York. He gave the keynote at last year’s Editor & Publisher Interactive Media conference in Las Vegas, and at this year’s World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers International Newsroom Summit in Zurich. The leaders of the news industry are eager to hear whether his “Digital First” plan of action is turning ideas into dollars.
Because JRC is now a private company, access to its finances are limited. This March, Paton reported a $41 million yearly “profit” in 2010—for which he awarded his employees a bonus of an extra week’s pay—but that figure only accounts for the company’s EBITDA, which is operating cashflow, not profit, and doesn’t include its hefty debt payments, taxes, and other key expenses. The most recent figures JRC released compare the first quarter of 2011 to the first quarter of 2010; they show that JRC is selling ten times the number of digital ads per month that it was the previous year, and that the number of digital revenue streams has increased from around thirteen to about sixty. Most importantly, he says, more than two-thirds of that revenue is purely digital—rather than being part of a print-online sales bundle.