After he became chief executive of the Journal Register Co. in early 2010, John Paton made the rounds to its many newspapers in the Midwest and Northeast. The new boss told employees they would go "digital first" with a vengeance — tweeting, Facebooking, blogging and video-posting news before contributing a single keystroke toward the next day's paper.
Hearing this pronouncement, one veteran columnist at a Michigan daily confronted Paton, telling him at a get-to-know-you dinner that his emphasis on the fast and furious online world was "ruining journalism." Paton fired back: "I read your column. You are ruining journalism."
In the last two years, the onetime copy boy has advanced to become one of the most powerful figures in the transformation of journalism from its print and analog past to a digital future. Partly as an outgrowth of bankruptcies and reorganizations that have swept the business, the little-known Canadian now controls a second newspaper chain, about 880 print and digital outlets with more than 10,000 employees and a Web audience of 40 million unique visitors a month.
Despite his low profile, Paton has riveted colleagues and competitors with the blitzkrieg pace of change. Everyone in the news business talks about expanding their footprint online, but Paton has pushed more aggressively in that direction and on a bigger scale than any other major executive.
The subject became of more than academic interest in California as of September. That's when Denver-based MediaNews named Paton its chief executive, giving the 54-year-old control of that company's more than 50 dailies nationally, many in the Golden State, including the San Jose Mercury News, Pasadena Star-News, Long Beach Press-Telegram, the Daily Breeze of the South Bay and the San Fernando Valley's Daily News.
Paton and his Digital First Media — a management company established four months ago that now oversees the recently bankrupt Journal Register and MediaNews chains — have put a 21st century spin on "Stop the presses!" Reporters post video before writing news stories, tweet to their readers in search of news tips and invite customers into news meetings to help mull story choices.
Ad reps had better be pushing Facebook placements, email blasts and online video ads. Paton's mantra: "Stack digital dimes to match print dollars."
The roundish chief executive with the insouciant Sydney Greenstreet affect displays a notable lack of sentimentality for parts of his lifelong trade. He has said that traditional print journalism has a value of "about zero," urged that newspaper people stop listening to other newspaper people, and stated that the public "knows more than we do" about their towns.
Media analyst Ken Doctor has called Paton "a demolition and remodeling expert" who must prove he can pull off the combination of radical cost reduction, innovative digital advertising and solid journalism. "We will see," Doctor said.
The newspaper business has been in an existential crisis for a decade or more. In just the past six years, revenue from print advertising has declined by half from $49.4 billion, according to one estimate.
Paton has lived through those changes in a career that began more than three decades ago at the Toronto Sun, where the young man raised in public housing got his start as a copy boy. Bright and supremely confident, he rose to CEO.
In 2003, he led a group that bought and merged New York's El Diario La Prensa with Los Angeles-based La Opinion and, eventually, seven other publications in what became the biggest Spanish-language news publisher in the U.S.
Paton got reporters pumping out information for cellphones and news widgets for MySpace Latino, among many new "platforms." "It wasn't so much we were doing things that had never been considered," said Monica Lozano, Paton's successor as impreMedia CEO. "It was that we were doing them in such a compressed time.... John pushes fast, and he pushes hard."
As with privately held impreMedia, results for the much larger English-language chains are not public. But Paton reports that Pennsylvania-based Journal Register, with small to medium papers in the Northeast and Midwest, has increased digital revenue from $6 million to $32 million over two years. Total revenue exceeds $300 million, after a 2% decline last year. That's better than the industry's 6% drop.
When Paton jumped from the company's board to chief executive in early 2010, he said the Journal Register would henceforth be known as a "media company," not a "newspaper company." The new boss punctuated his point by buying 1,000 Flip video cameras — which became standard issue for reporters.
The results are websites that bristle with editorial features, a cacophony of ads and multiple portals for average citizens to contribute. The jumble is "still a bit of a mess," said Paton's editor in chief Jim Brady, but the company makes up for this by opening new levels of discourse, Brady said.
When tropical storm Irene hit Connecticut, the outlets there used open-source software and input from readers to map the location of flooding and fallen trees. Last summer, the Trentonian in New Jersey quickly reported the identification of a victim in an apartment-house shooting after it contacted sources via Google+. One reader delivered photos electronically along with a running commentary that captured the anxiety of a police lockdown.
Such communion with customers takes on a bricks-and-mortar manifestation at the Register Citizen in Torrington, Conn., where locals can grab coffee, bang out blog items at a computer terminal or join the daily story conference in a "newsroom cafe." Paton's goal is to have one-third of the content produced by staff members, one-third by the community and another third aggregated from other sources. The formula will increase the net flow of information and was not designed to reduce the need for paid staffers, Paton has said.
Trentonian columnist Jeff Edelstein feels energized by the multiple ways he's now engaging readers. "I feel like I'm working for a company that is driving down the field," he said, "as opposed to tossing up a Hail Mary."
In a time of scarce jobs, unhappy journalists don't like to be quoted by name. But a reporter at one Journal Register paper said on background that the new focus "puts a pretty low priority on quality." A 32-year New Haven (Conn.) Register employee worried about "spending more time on the medium, the technology, than the content." True to its digital transparency credo, that revelation was posted on one of the Register's blogs.
The mood has not been brightened by news that the company is considering outsourcing some jobs to other countries.
The Digital First crusade embraces some of the views of new-media pundits such as Clay Shirky, Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis, who see journalism getting better as more, and more diverse, consumers help professionals report the news. Media critic Dean Starkman took on this "Future of News" crowd in a recent Columbia Journalism Review article. "The cruel truth of the emerging networked news environment is that reporters are as disempowered as they have ever been," Starkman wrote, "writing more often, under more pressure, with less autonomy, about more trivial things than under the previous monopolistic regime."
Paton said he has been often misinterpreted, including in attacks on his remark about the value of traditional journalism being "about zero." He said he meant only that the ability to present stories immediately online "makes it very difficult to say that stories in the morning paper about, say, what the mayor said last night, have any real value."
In a recent appearance in New York, he talked about all the new ways his reporters could reach the audience in more timely ways, injecting new life in the news business. He also conceded that the multiple demands of the digital-first world will not be borne easily by some of his employees. "We will be and are burning people out," he said. "And I think quality will suffer because of that, not because of the [digital] tools."