Last week, I had the pleasure of spending an hour on the phone with John Paton as he drove from Ohio to Michigan. John is the newly appointed president of the Journal Register Company and up until February of this year, he was Chair and CEO of the Spanish language newspaper company, impreMedia.
The fact that a kid from public housing grew to be a prominent newspaper publisher in both Canada and the US isn’t the most amazing thing about John. What's truly amazing is that he is a publisher who gets it. And in my opinion, that's extraordinarily rare.
John blogs and tweets. His eyes are wide open, he isn’t lying to himself about the state of the newspaper industry and he’s not afraid to make the tough decisions most other newspaper executives are avoiding. And though his papers are in some of the economically hardest hit regions of the US, if anyone is going to figure out how to keep newspapers alive in the 21st century, I’m betting it will be John.
In his December 2009 speech to the WAN conference in Hyderabad, India, John outlined the steps he took to save impreMedia during the economic downturn. I’d give you a link, but it seems the speech has been (ominously) removed from the impreMedia site. I have a copy of it though and it reads as a blueprint for all publishers to follow:
- An acknowledgement that media companies must work with the sea of change brought on by the digital world, not against it.
- A web first, brand first strategy. A breaking news story will start as an SMS message, then go to the web and social media, be enhanced with video and audio and then be printed for the newspaper last.
- Smart outsourcing of non-value creating activities such as pre-press, printing and distribution.
- Investment in value creators such as editorial, marketing, reader research and technology. Investment in editorial does not mean editorial processes don’t have to change. John heeds Jeff Jarvis’s advice to “do what you do best and link to the rest”. That means not sending “10 reporters to the world cup”.
- The beginnings of a newspaper-curated, hyper-local blogging network.
I think it’s safe to say that the folks at JRC can expect similar initiatives in the coming months. Within 3 weeks of his arrival, he put his money where his mouth was by providing flip cameras for reporters.
After all the changes are done, John believes newspapers will make smaller revenues but also higher profits. The changes won’t come easily and in John’s words, there will be “blood on the floor”. But when I hung up the phone, I felt, well, inspired. It’s been a long time since a newspaper exec left me feeling that way.
Edit: My original post said John was from Winnipeg. John tells me he was born in Glasgow, then grew up in Toronto and London, Ontario. God knows why I thought he was from Winnipeg. This is why I'm a marketer and not a journalist.