Everyone defines "digital first" a little bit differently, said Jim Brady, editor-in-chief at Digital First Media in the US, but what is important is that a switch to digital first involves real changes, not just rhetoric. Brady was speaking in Paris at a conference organized by the Online News Association and GESTE, a French online publishers group.
Going digital first is not a “shift” or a “transition:” it requires a reinvention of your operation, he said. And this can work, he emphasised. Under the leadership of CEO John Paton, the Journal Register Company (now part of Digital First Media) went from bankruptcy in 2009 to earnings of $41 million in 2010, and 30% of its revenue now comes from digital, up from 5%.
Digital First Media now runs the JRC and MediaNews Group: a total of 75 dailies and about 250 weeklies.
Brady pointed out that figures from Pew’s State of the News Media project show that, at least in the US, more and more people are accessing news online and it is extremely unlikely that the trend will reverse. Digital first is therefore the strategy for the future, he believes, and he warned about waiting until it’s too late to change course.
Brady stressed the often un-tapped potential of digital for news. “The newspaper used to be the best way we could present the news,” he said, “but now we can reach the consumer 24 hours a day wherever they are.” What’s more, the web is the first real “shape-shifter,” he continued, “it can be whatever you want it to be: a newspaper, a TV, a radio.” The web allows everybody to break out of their traditional silos.
The practicalities of going digital first at JRC/Digital First Media:
- All of DFM’s newsrooms are staffed to start at 6am. “This means we have fewer people on the paper but we have to start the day when people wake up,” Brady said.
- Stories are not held for print. “I never get a good answer to why people what to break in print,” he continued.
- Journalists receive a good deal of training, and crucially, they are made to understand why they are doing it and how it can improve their work
- What readers think is important. Brady emphasized the necessity to embrace the two-way nature of digital, and to make readers feel a true connection to the publication.
- A story doesn’t have to include text, if a video or photos can tell it better. “We shoot about 1000 videos a week at JRC,” Brady said.
Paton replaced print leaders with digital people to make sure that digital first really was at the heart of strategy. Some staff did have to go, Brady said, but not as many as you might think on the news-gathering side: journalist numbers are only down by 2%, he said.
“Our entire strategy is based on two things,” said Brady: “we are the biggest news gatherers in each of the cities we operate in, and we have the biggest sales forces. So we try not to cut these down.” Building off the idea that the papers’ greatest strengths are in their journalism, Digital First is creating investigative reporting units.
Looking forward, Brady said, “every group of papers has had to put together a plan for when they will hit the crossover point: when they are making $1.01 in digital revenue for every $1 that they lose in print.” For most, this is still a couple of years off, he added, but they are getting closer.