the audit

Digital First goes the Newhouse route in upstate New York

In Oneida, the paper moves to three days a week, following the Post-Standard
January 17, 2013

The three-day-a-week newspaper model pioneered by Advance Publications in Michigan is now spreading to Digital First Media.

The company will move its Oneida Daily Dispatch from six days a week to three, including a new a Sunday edition, on February 3.

It’s not a surprise that Digital First would follow closely on Advance’s heels. CEO John Paton and Advance scion Steve Newhouse are philosophically in sync. You can’t charge for your journalism–its “value is about zero”–so it’s all in on the clicks model.

It’s no accident that the two firms share a consultant in Jeff Jarvis, who’s on the Digital First board, ran Advance’s digital arm for years, and still advises the company. Jarvis consulted on, the twice-weekly paper (actually called and bloggy website that replaced the 174-year-old The Ann Arbor News–with about half the journalists–in 2009.

There’s a difference though, between Advance’s moves in May and Digital First’s today, and it’s critical: In New Orleans, Alabama, and elsewhere the Newhouses have gone to the three-day model, they’ve slashed the newsrooms along with the pressrooms. By contrast, the Daily Dispatch reports that its newsroom won’t be cut–or at least that “There are no staff reductions associated with the change in publishing frequency.”

Still, it’s hard to imagine Daily Dispatch subscribers looking kindly on getting charged the same price for half the editions, although the addition a Sunday paper, particularly if its full of new features, might counter that.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

And Digital First errs in not leveling with its readers on exactly why it’s cutting out three of their papers. Readers, particularly older ones, are attached to their daily routines, and if you have any respect for them at all, you need to tell them why distant owners are upending their mornings.

Is the paper losing money or about to start losing money? Has circulation become so sparse that the economics of daily distribution no longer make sense or is it the decline of advertising–or both?

This kind of thing, from the paper’s GM, doesn’t cut it: “We will continue to provide our community with news and information when, where and how they want it.”

No you won’t, and it’s insulting to give your readers that kind of false-on-its-face spin. Here’s another line of digital mumbo jumbo from Digital First’s press release (emphasis mine):

“Changes in the marketplace have allowed us to accelerate our transition to a more comprehensive, multi-platform offering.”

I’d guess well more than half of Daily Dispatch readers have no idea what she’s talking about. Nor would readers of Advance’s Syracuse Post-Standard, which runs the quote as if the reporter actually interviewed the GM rather than copying it from a statement. Hamster-tastic! But hey, that’s what happens when you have reporters writing their sixth story in three days. No time to actually talk to people, so just pretend you did and hope nobody notices.

The Post-Standard, not coincidentally, will be knocked down to three days a week of home delivery on February 3, the same day as the Daily Dispatch.

Odd, huh?

It turns out that the Daily Dispatch outsourced its print run to the Post-Standard back in 2011. Nobody–not DFM’s flacks nor the Daily Dispatch itself– bothered to mention that.

It turns out Advance didn’t just lead by example here. It influenced the Oneida paper’s move to three days in a much more direct way.

Fortunately, Paton and Digital First did not follow the Newhouse model of massacring the newsroom in the process of remaking distribution.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR’s business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.