Journal Register Company's open newsroom a sign of transition to 'digital first'

The Register Citizen in Torrington, Conn., made headlines a few months ago when it moved into a new building and invited readers in for coffee and free Wi-Fi. Beyond community outreach, the building and "open newsroom" represent a transformative effort by the Journal Register Company to put digital first.

For Matt DeRienzo, the paper’s publisher, “digital first” means “de-emphasizing the time and expense of the print edition, which is increasingly becoming irrelevant.”

The goal is not to eliminate print, he said, but to develop a business model that enables journalists to re-engage with their communities and produce local journalism that is “not dependent on print to survive.”

So while the Wi-Fi may have gotten the attention, the move to a new building has enabled The Register-Citizen to rent its new office space and put the old building on the market. That results in less time and expense maintaining the property and better working conditions for the staff.

Jonathan Cooper, vice president of content for the Journal Register Company, was an editor in Torrington a decade ago. He said the old space was “not an inviting structure” for journalists or community members.

Now readers can drop in to use a computer, do research in the newspaper’s archives, attend a budget meeting or take a class. Around Valentine’s Day the paper hosted an online chat, presented by a local resident, on how to write a love letter.

The paper’s goal, DeRienzo stressed, is to pursue its mission of community engagement while operating a viable business. That requires examining every assumption, every staff position and every expense through a digital-reader-first lens.

DeRienzo told me that none of these efforts is new or even unique to the company. But the frenetic pace and scale of experimentation is. For example:

  • The three daily papers and the “couple of dozen” weeklies in DeRienzo's division of the Journal Register Company all print at a single press in New Haven, about 40 minutes south of Torrington.
  • Layout and design for his weekly newspapers will soon be handled by a centralized desk, freeing their editors to focus more on content and community.
  • Of the 70 to 80 JRC employees he oversees, soon all but two will be directly involved in producing news or selling advertising to support it. Of the two, one handles human resources and administrative duties, and the other manages print circulation.
  • The company launched an “Idea Lab” last summer made up of selected staffers that are charged with, as CEO John Paton wrote at the time, “experimenting with the latest technology and tools to help our company think differently about what we do and how we do it.”
  • In another well-documented experiment called the "Ben Franklin project," the chain’s daily newspapers published on July 4, 2010, using nothing but free tools available on the Internet.
  • In Philadelphia, the company is planning to launch a hyperlocal “online news portal” that will aggregate coverage from local bloggers and partner with Yahoo to provide targeted advertising.

Cooper does not expect all of these initiatives to succeed. But what they all have in common is a radical, sometimes painful, attempt to restructure the practice and cost of local journalism.

“Reduced costs” is often code for “smaller staffs” — and the company has cut staff in recent years. But Cooper and DeRienzo have the same response to those concerns: the goal is finding a way to support local journalism.

“If we can create a sustainable business model,” Cooper said, “we can make a difference in our community.”

DeRienzo spoke extensively about moving away from a print-first mentality, but he said that doesn't mean the company wants to close newspapers. Instead it represents his belief that the long-term health of local journalism requires that digital platforms take precedence.

Cooper said that this transition from print-first to digital-first must be handled one challenge at a time. Working with newsrooms he likes to ask, “What is the leading obstacle to you doing your job on a daily basis?”

A clunky content management system might be an immediate problem, but it is a long-term project. Cooper said he is more interested in short-term, affordable tasks that often get overlooked in newsrooms but can make journalists' lives easier.

Such a change could be connecting two staffers for peer-to-peer training or finding a free, online tool to accomplish a reporting task. The list differs for every person and newsroom, Cooper said, but the goal is to show that “improvement is possible” and to “make life better for your team.”

The Register-Citizen moved out of its old building in order to focus on digital platforms and community engagement. That move represents the company’s answer to the question of how newspapers can best serve local communities.

DeRienzo expressed choice this way: “What is core to what you are doing? Is it the bricks and mortar?” Or, he suggested, is it the journalism?

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