Ink begone, digital must come first: Paton

The biggest investment newspapers are going to have to make to transform is in IT support. At least that's what more than 200 Canadian newspaper editors, publishers and CEOs  heard during John Paton's address at the opening panel of CNA's 2010 conference, Ink and Beyond -- the national annual gathering of close to 300 daily and community papers to discuss the future of the industry.

Paton challenged newspaper leaders to drop their print bias and embrace a new direction. He argued that to become a multi-platform news agency newspapers need to give up the privileges they've bestowed on the print product. Digital thinkers -- not print-centric thinkers -- need to be placed at the helm of the newsroom transformation so that online priorities are first and print demands are last, Paton said as more delegates scribbled notes onto paper than fidgeted with smartphones. 

Paton's multi-platform news "ecology" is based on the legacy he built at impreMedia, where he transformed a newspaper into a network of instant messaging, social networking, videos, audio clips and website. He boasted that impreMedia, a national Hispanic news organization in the U.S., started off with nine products on two platforms and now has nearly 100 products on seven platforms. 
 
Paton argued that the radical change impreMedia underwent was necessary to make it prosperous and all newspapers should consider similar newsroom revolutions if they plan to keep their doors open. 
 
But transforming to multi-platforms is difficult. 
 
"The word transform seems to connote a smooth transition from one thing to the next," he said. "But I think what our industry is going through is a bloody battle for survival."
 
And there will be blood shed. One harsh piece of advice Paton gave was to fire reporters and editors who can't adapt to a digital-first approach and learn to multi-task in their coverage of the news. His staff at the Journal Register Company, which he just took over in January,  are all being trained in video reporting with Flip cameras and blogging. Since the training begun, the organization's video output went from 117,000 streams to around 2.2 million.
 
Asking reporters to multi-task is just one change. Paton also said that pre-print work, page make-up, and workplace infrastructure -- things like mail delivery -- ought to be outsourced. His newsroom is a leaner machine with the sole aim of delivering news through multiple conduits. Despite downsizing, Paton maintains a strong belief that the news being delivered ought to be high quality. He noted several news projects ImpreMedia took on to help advocate issues in Hispanic communities across the US as examples of powerful journalism from this new multi-directional approach.
 
"The business models are only a way to preserve and enhance real journalism," Paton said, reminding delegates that having a handle on the business of journalism is the only way to make sure news organizations are able to produce strong, investigative news coverage and fulfill their duty in a democracy.