There are no promises when you go digital

By SAIRA SUMBAL

What does a business model look like for a company with more than 800 digital and print products in 18 states serving 57 million customers per month?

In April, I gave a presentation on a news company called Digital First Media. The company operates Digital First Ventures, MediaNews Group and Journal Register Company, thus allowing it the capability of reaching 57 million customers per month. Through its various arms, the company sets out to take news and disseminate it through various digital channels. Every content producer is given a flip camera for reporting. 

With the Ben Franklin Project, some staffers were asked to report only utilizing journalism tools that were available to them for free. And the company’s newsrooms each have a space where local citizens, the people the newspaper is producing content for, can suggest stories.

The value I saw in giving a presentation on Digital First Media to a room full of future journalists? The company’s work in disseminating news literally embodies their name, “digital first.” And its journalists put an emphasis on catering their work to their audience.

This statement on Digital First Media CEO John Paton’s blog, however, came by surprise:

The rest of the open letter is outlined here. So now for the big question: what went wrong? From 2009 to 2011 the digital revenue of the company grew 235 percent and digital audience more than doubled (okay, that’s good). But also from 2009 to 2011, this happened:

 

 

It seems the decline in print journalism ended up hurting the company the most, regardless of the fact that the company put digital first. Paton attempted to create a news business model catered heavily to his reader’s needs, breaking traditional molds by bringing citizens into the newsroom (literally).

If a majority of the company’s newspapers are distributed within small, local communities, it may be possible, though, that local readers do not have a plethora of resources to find news about local events. However, is it worth it for the company to invest money in printing a newspaper that has such a small base? I wonder if the advertising base was there.

Though the company is filing for Chapter 11, what Paton did was brave. It may not have put his company where he expected it to be, but he experimented with a particular business approach. It will truly be interesting to see where Digital First Media will go in the future.

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