‘Digital First’: A New Model for Newspapers

CEO John Paton (photo, Nieman Lab)

Sometimes, you reach a point where you think all the newspapers should just combine their audience and online advertising efforts and be smart, big, technologically savvy and competitive with everyone else. Like the combined effort on Cars.com, for instance.

That’s the game plan behind Digital First, a new management effort that allows the forward thinking execs at , an 18 title chain in the Northeast to manage Media News Group, the 2nd largest newspaper company with 57 titles spread out in multiple regions. Together, the companies will have 11,000 employees, 75 newspapers (and 880 print and online products).

While Journal Register and MNG have been motivated by the interests of their joint investor, Alden Global Corp., it seems possible that other newspaper companies might also eventually join. Alden bought Journal Register in 2010 and is the largest holder of Media News Group.

Journal Register CEO John Paton, for one, has been a vocal proponent of the ongoing value of newspapers in print and online, and has assembled a strong team to execute, including hyperlocal proponent Jim Brady. The reach of the MNG properties should provide more scale to Paton’s efforts.

MNG, itself, for all practical purposes, ends a long history as an industry maverick that sharply cut newsgathering costs (i.e.salaries), and experimented with new formats and services. The company has had a tradition of being an online vendor’s best friend, always willing to take meetings with new companies. But at the same time, its cost-cutting ways resulted in new areas being underfunded.

Recently, MNG has pushed paywalls to block free, non-subscriber access to its content. It has also collapsed its 12 Bay Area titles to two titles, increasing the individual circulation for those titles, but possibly at the cost of less local coverage in print (but perhaps easily segmented online.) These strategies may be re-evaluated under the new regime.

At this point, the newspaper industry have several “we’re all in this together” products. Things like The Yahoo consortium, which has placed national advertising in papers and sold search; The AP; Cars.com; and various national and regional ad nets.

Some work well, but what we’ve seen is that there is no magic bullet. In fact, the impact of newspapers has been a little underwhelming for its partners. Still, newspapers deliver strong retail relationships and a strong and frequent readership (if aging and inevitably, dwindling).

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