Thursday, April 29, 2010

A look at John Paton's first 90 days as CEO of Journal Register Co.

John Paton will celebrate his 90th day as CEO of the Journal Register Company (parent company of this newspaper) this weekend. It has been a whirlwind three months for John and for the 3,100 employees of JRC, including those working here.

After a year of uncertainty as the company went into, and later emerged from bankruptcy and conducted a search for a leader, JRC has not only been reporting the headlines but making them almost weekly for a series of announcements about the bold steps it is taking to transform to a digital company.

Here are some highlights:
- John started work on Feb. 1; his first two days on the job were attending an already-scheduled meeting of JRC publishers, a handful of editors and corporate executives. He told those gathered the company's current business model was broken and that "all employees must recognize we have to change. And fast." He explained that the company must be "digital first and brands first" and set goals for significantly increasing operating cash flow from the digital side of the business over the next 3 to 5 years. He also charged those in the room with ensuring that the company is the "number one choice" for news in all of the communities that it serves. He restated these and other goals to all employees later in the week in both a companywide phone conference and in a letter.
- An advisory board was named in mid-March. Paton said in the announcement that the board "is charged with helping us assess the changes we need to make (to participate in social media and other digital innovations) and pushing us to experiment in new ways of news creation and delivery." Named were: Jeff Jarvis (an author and associate professor and director of the Interactive Journalism program and the new business models for news project at the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism; Jay Rosen, PhD (a professor and former chair of the journalism program at New York University and a member of the Advisory Board of Wikipedia); and Betsy Morgan (a former CEO of the Huffington Post and former senior vice president and general manager of
- Earlier this month, Paton announced the launch of the Ben Franklin Project. Two JRC newspapers are empowering their communities to decide what information readers would like to see covered, and to become active members of the news-gathering process by submitting tips, personal stories, photos, videos and more using tools found for free on the Internet. Part of the project's mission is to create a web and print publication for one week that uses only free tools widely available on the Internet to demonstrate just how easy it is for citizens to become 'citizen journalists'. One newspaper had a community forum this week to field ideas of what readers would like to see the paper cover as part of the process.
- And last week Paton announced "a major citizen journalism initiative" with a partnership with SeeClickFix that allows Web site visitors to observe, report and follow issues - from poor road conditions to blighted buildings - in their communities.

Other changes include giving EVERY reporter in the company a digital Flip HD camera to contribute video to our Web sites (these were quickly paid for through new digital sales initiatives); the establishment of community media labs at six JRC newspapers (to encourage citizen journalism); restructuring at corporate to flatten the company and give more decision-making powers to the field; a considerable amount of training through Webinars and corporate conferences (touching more than one-third of the company's employees); and announcement of an employee profit-sharing plan.

Paton and JRC have been garnering considerable press for this recent activity. From trade industry magazines such as Editor and Publisher, to bloggers such as Judy Sims, a former vice president of Digital Media for the Toronto Star Media Group, the industry is eagerly watching the transformation at JRC.

But much more change is coming - most importantly, developments that will radically improve all of our print and digital products. You can follow these here on my blog and/or on John's blog.

My gut tells me the activity in this company in any 90 day period over the next few years will equal or exceed the pace of the past three months. Employees are on notice this transformation isn't for the faint of heart, and readers have been encouraged to expect more - and engage more - with the various products that comprise this emerging leader in U.S. community journalism.

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