As Naomi Klein, author of the anti-branding manifesto No Logo, doubtless discovered when No Logo became a brand and logo itself, slogans have meaning. Sometimes they get overstretched and overused, and you can waste a lot of time trying to analyze them in too much depth. But slogans matter, so it’s worth treating them seriously.
Which is why it’s worth looking more closely at “Digital First” as a manifesto for the digital publishing age.
It’s not new, of course; but Journal Register Co. CEO John Paton has cropped up in the news most recently in a series of tweets – at the Newspaper Association of America convention – about how to transform newspapers. They’re also at his blog, appropriately named Digital First, where one of his “Ten Tweets to Transform Newspapers” is:
“the new newspaper model must become digital first and print last”
Paton brings some real credentials to this discussion – he’s taken the struggling Journal Register Co. from bankruptcy to a $41 million profit in less than two years – and has paid out a week’s bonus to all employees as a reward. That’s pretty impressive. As he notes on his blog:
We learned to harness both cloud and crowd. Using new tools and working the new news ecology we produced new digital products and revenue streams AND reduced costs. We focused on what we do best and linked to the rest.
We learned how to put out out daily newspapers and websites using only free web tools. And the Ben Franklin Project was born. We established the ideaLab and you came up with more and better products.
We put about 1,000 Flip cams in your hands and we now produce about 4,000 minutes of original local news video per week. Stay tuned for more on that next quarter – think JRC TV.
Now, I’m all for radical change in newsrooms – in fact, the whole thesis of this blog is about how we need to change our processes and products drastically if we’re to make journalism work in the digital age. And certainly the first of this ten tweets – “the newspaper model is broken & can’t be fixed” – is hard to argue with, at least in terms of the old ad-driven model.
But I question what people really mean when they say we should be “digital first”. In many cases, it’s shorthand for posting news faster and faster to the web, throwing multimedia at it, and curating lots of content from elsewhere. That’s great – in some ways – because online does provide an opportunity for quicker updates and more interactivity. But if that’s all that digital first means, then it’s missing huge opportunities in terms of how to reach audiences online and offer them information they really want, in a format they can usefully use. And it doesn’t really fundamentally rethink what we do, except make it go faster, at lower cost, with more bells and whistles.
I’ve delved into that in much more detail elsewhere here, so I won’t repeat many of those arguments here. But it strikes me that calling for “digital first” is akin to calling for “paper first” – focusing on a medium rather than on a product or a practice. What would that mean: We should think about how stories might fit in the space allocated? Worry about how colors might reproduce on newsprint?
Wouldn’t it make more sense to talk about “journalism first”? That would at least put the focus on the quality of what we do. Or perhaps “digital journalism first” so we remember we’re in a digital world.
I’m not serious, of course. At least not about those suggestions. But it seems to me that what we really be focusing on is “Product First.” Because that’s the only real frame that puts users and their needs – and more broadly, perhaps, the needs of society – at the center of what we do. And then makes us tailor our work and processes to create that product. (Plus, hopefully turn a buck at it.)
To be sure, dissecting slogans can be overly pedantic. And Paton has a lot of good and interesting advice to give – including on the need to keep experimenting and on finding many more revenue streams. Not that he doesn’t have his share of skeptics.
If Paton is wrong in urging publishers to de-emphasize print in favor of the digital media, then publishers who follow him will be screwed. Remember: Print advertising and circulation today deliver some 80% to 90% of the revenues at the typical newspaper.
But there’s certainly one line that few can disagree with, when Paton suggests putting more digitally-savvy people in charge rather than print veterans.
“We’ve had 15 years to get this right – and we’ve failed.”