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.

All of that growth adds up to a 67 percent increase in total digital revenue in a year. How much money does all of that actually add up to, and will it be able to make up for the loss in print ad revenue, which decreased by 7 percent in the same time period? JRC won’t release the hard numbers for the ad revenue overall, so it is hard to know. The relative change over the last year, at least, compares favorably to the industry overall. According to the NAA, the industry’s print revenue decreased by 9.5 percent from Q1 2010 to Q1 2011, but digital ad revenue only increased by 10.6 percent. And a calculation off those exact sales figures shows that, if the industry had increased digital and decreased print by the same percentages as JRC did, it would have successfully made up for the decline in print with its digital growth.

When NAA released those figures, Paton wrote in an e-mail: “An industry growing digital ads at about 10 percent is going to die. A company like ours growing digital ads at about 70 percent is going to make it.” He added that JRC was on track to be within a couple percentage points of replacing lost print ad revenue with its increased digital ad revenue this year.

But would it be possible for the rest of the industry to make such dramatic gains, when most companies are not starting from rock-bottom, as JRC was? And, assuming print revenue continues to slide, is it possible for JRC to continue to increase digital sales by such a large percentage for more than a few years? JRC has shown impressive revenue growth since Paton took over, but it’s much easier to grow quickly from a low base than it is to maintain that rate of growth.

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