Jim Brady is the newly-appointed Editor-in-Chief of the Journal Register Company, a news organization that owns over 350 multi-platform publications. The company has been hailed as a digital success story: it filed for bankruptcy in 2009, but after embracing CEO John Paton's 'digital first' strategy it turned a profit of more than $40 million in 2010.
The company unites digital technology with a very focused local approach. One of the JRC's initiatives has been the Register Citizen Newsroom Café in Torrington, Connecticut, a project that invites members of the public into the newsroom and encourages them to contribute to the news.
Brady, formerly of The Washington Post and TBD, joined the JRC in March 2011 to lead 'Project Thunderdome', a plan to centralize national content and hence give local reporters more time to stick to local stories.
Brady will be speaking at the 18th World Editors Forum in Vienna about how to build a community around your publication.
WAN-IFRA: The JRC's CEO John Paton, has really plugged 'digital first'. What does it mean in practice?
If you're going to be 'digital first' you have to live up to that; news has to go out when it breaks, you can't hold things for the paper. It's embracing local and realizing now that you can reach people 24/7 on a device that's usually attached to their pocket. 'Digital first' is just throwing off the chains of a very rigid print schedules; there's no logic of why we print the paper at the time we do other than we want to get it to you when you wake up in the morning. There's a lot of other time in the day to get news to people and we can't build our entire ecosystem around getting the paper out or else we'll leave about 18 hours of the day on the floor.
WAN-IFRA: Can you explain Project Thunderdome?
Thunderdome is a project to help centralize resources to produce non-local content for all of the JRC's properties. Every local paper in the chain has national content in it but it's not their area of expertise. We want local papers to focus on covering their local communities and not on covering Wall Street or the war in Afghanistan. So we're creating a centralized team to produce that content for all of the local papers and their websites; that will free up a lot of the resources in the building to go back out on the streets and report, as opposed to doing production work.
WAN-IFRA: What are your top three tips for actively engaging digital users?
The first tip would be one that's a little offbeat, I guess, for digital, which is don't forget about the need for face-to-face contact. I think we found, certainly at TBD [Brady's previous project] that actually going out and meeting the people that you're meant to be working with was really important. You've got to meet the community or else you're not really going to be able to cover it that well.
Secondly I think transparency with the community's important. If you miss a story, or you get something wrong in a story, I think openness really goes a long way.
The third one is understand what they want too. At TBD we built a network of 250 blogs and we just pointed to them. A lot of people said: 'why don't you take their blogs and put them on your site?' Because they would not have been as happy partners if we had done that, because they're trying to build their own businesses with their own reputations. You've got to help them do that. Work with them on their terms.
WAN-IFRA: In the cafe newsroom in Torrington you invite members of the public to help create the news. What have the responses been from contributors and readers?
It's been very positive. The openness of that newsroom led to the governor of Connecticut coming in and unveiling his budget there. It got a lot of good buzz and I think that this kind of openness is too rare in newsrooms. The fact that a reader who doesn't like what the paper has written can essentially walk right up to the editor or the reporter and tell him that he thought the story wasn't right - in some cases I think it's a positive thing. I'm not sure that every reporter in the world would agree with that!
But in the end we have to be accountable for what we write. This works both ways, you know - if the reader is off base then the reporter is perfectly able to get into a discussion with that reader. It can be the opportunity for a good discussion that could lead to a better relationship with people in the community. So I think it's been a huge hit and we definitely want to expand it beyond Torrington.
WAN-IFRA: Paton has spoken out against paywalls. Do you think that high-profile publications like The New York Times have made a mistake?
First of all, the Times is in its own category so if the paywall works for them that doesn't mean its going to work for anybody else. Generally, I'm not in favor of paywalls because I think they work against the whole orientation of the web. A lot of the web is about discovery; you find a site you didn't know about before because somebody linked to it. If you put it behind a big paywall - not The New York Times' version which is a metered thing - but if you're talking about just a pure paywall, Google doesn't index you, blogs don't link to you. You really lock yourself off from the rest of the internet.
A lot of the time that paywall only exists to preserve print readers, and the truth is the print readers are not going to be around forever, so what are you going to do when they're not around any more to buy the paper or pay for the website? You're going to have a whole generation of readers who are not used to paying for content who are not going to come to your site. And you're not going to be able to grow any new audience because you're totally blocked off from the rest of the internet. So I think the pure paywall is a huge mistake.
WAN-IFRA: So what are the best models today for monetizing digital content?
I don't think that money's going to be here this year or maybe even next, but I think location-based stuff is going to be huge, especially in small communities. Every local advertiser wants, for the most part, people in their store. So I want more people to look at the location-based stuff and say 'we will only deliver this ad to readers that we know are within a mile of your pizza place'. And that's a pretty good sell point for a pizza place that's not going to spend a lot of money on buying a region-wide ad.
Events is one [model] that people are starting to experiment with that I think is a good one. There's certainly no reason you can't charge for events around public debates.
I've always liked the services model. I know it's gone through its ups and downs but the idea of helping small advertisers with their social media strategy or with creation of advertising - I think small papers should be doing that.
The line I've used a bunch of times in the past has been "there's no silver bullet". It's little chunks of a bullet and that are going to come from different revenue streams.
WAN-IFRA: With so much focus on user-generated content, what's the best way to ensure editorial quality?
It's giving people time to do their reporting and time to do the research they need to. It's not easy, there's no doubt about that, in this world where the web rewards you producing a lot of content but you don't always have a lot of people.
So I actually think the way to preserve editorial quality is by trusting other bloggers and other sites in the community to help you produce it. I think that's been a bit of a mental block for a lot of papers that say, "that person's not on staff, they're not a professional journalist". And at TBD our attitude was, if we've gone back and read the last two or three months worth of this blogger's work, at some point you just have to decide this person's credible: they've built an audience, they've been accurate, they've been impactful. And if they can fit in all those criteria I don't really care if they came out of school with a BA in journalism or not.
The answer is not to try to tell a newsroom to produce twice as much content with the same number of people because there's no way that you can avoid quality degrading a little bit if you do that.
WAN-IFRA: At the WAN-IFRA Newsroom Summit John Paton quoted Vint Cerf of Google saying "People's trust in journalism has always been about branding." What's the best way to create a strong brand in your community?
I think it's to go where the readers are. A line that somebody used, I can't remember who it was: "We have to stop trying to get people to our homepage and we have to start getting our homepage to the people" And I think the concept there is that you know people are spending a ton of time on Google and on Twitter and on Facebook and you've just got to be there.
WAN-IFRA: What are your top priorities to ensure continued success?
It's to get Thunderdome launched. It's to get out to all the newsrooms as quickly as possible and talk about where we're headed and just let them know where we want to
take the company journalistically. It's to raise to overall quality of the journalism at JRC. Not to say it's bad not - it's not. But there's a lot we can do via partnerships, via expanding the local reporting.
And I think we need to improve the look and feel of our websites. I think the websites are fine, but we're not doing as good a job as we could of making it clear to the reader what we think the biggest stories of the day are and we're not doing a good enough job of engaging the audience in aggressive and high-profile ways. So we're working on that as well.