One Town, Two Newspapers: Will the Real Digital Innovators Please Stand Up?

Another day, another newspaper bankruptcy. This time it was the Journal Register national chain, home to eighteen small dailies including the New Haven Register, and now operating under the seemingly sexier-sounding name of Digital First Media. That rechristening had been trumpeted as more than mere window-dressing—Digital First Media’s senior executives publicly embraced the Internet as the future of journalism, boasting of not only their “digital DNA,” but also their determination to “stop listening to newspaper people” and their stuck-in-the-past, ink-stained thinking. Don’t panic over vanishing print ad revenue, Digital First chief executive John Paton insisted last September: If you stack them high enough, “Digital dimes can replace Print dollars.” For an industry desperately casting about for survival strategies, the Journal Register’s Chapter 11 filing early this month, only a year later, appeared to signal particularly dark days ahead.

Yet as media pundits weighed in on this bankruptcy, regardless of their stance towards Paton—doggedly brave innovator committed to a paperless future or yet another smooth-talking corporate huckster—virtually all the day-after reckonings shared one key trait: None of them bothered to actually look at the products at the center of this financial drama.

So what of these Journal Register newspaper websites—the journalistic guinea pigs for all this relentless experimentation? Why not take a moment to visit the site for the chain’s flagship, the New Haven Register? Surf away!

Back so soon? Is that a bottle of Tylenol in your hand?

It’s hard to imagine a worse-designed, more downright ugly newspaper website than what the Digital First Media brain trust has come up with for the New Haven Register. From the clown-car layout (how many separate boxes of headache-inducing text can we cram onto one page?) to the crude font, the Register seems less like the digital future than a creaky GeoCities holdover from the Web’s earliest days. This is what so many of Digital First’s boosters been cheerleading for? This is what millions and millions of dollars have been poured into?

Clicking through to read the Register’s articles doesn’t improve matters. The local reporting—or what’s left of it—has been dumbed down to an extent that makes USA Today read like The New Yorker. Actually, that’s being unfair to USA Today—while brief, their political stories are at least coherent. Anyone trying to get a handle on New Haven’s city hall via the Register will be faced largely with mind-numbing, he-said she-said stenography, free of any explanatory context or background. An occasional story with some life in it might still creep onto the Register’s pages (Randall Beach’s columns remain one of only a few signs of a pulse), but good luck stumbling across them in the jumbled morass of the newspaper’s website.

What makes this state of affairs all the more bizarre is that an inspiring digital future does exist in New Haven. Over at the online-only New Haven Independent, editor Paul Bass has instituted most of the old-school conventions which the Register has tossed aside. Their nonprofit structure isn’t yet entirely self-supporting. And the Independent isn’t going to win any beauty pageant awards for its own web design, though it’s hardly the visual trainwreck summoned up by the Register. But Bass isn’t trying to reinvent the journalistic wheel.

For starters, daily reporting isn’t “crowd-sourced.” Bass assigns it primarily to either himself or three other full-time paid staffers—all of whom regularly close their laptops and hit the pavement, interviewing sources face-to-face, covering events first-hand and writing real stories full of nuance and analysis. Not all of these reporters share Bass’ decades of experience in digging around New Haven’s nooks and crannies, but the emphasis is on doing just that—learning the ins and outs of the city and making sense of it all, not producing a sea of inane videos, glib tweets and half-baked blog posts.

Readers in New Haven have been responding—and not merely in the heated (but moderated) comments sections, which often feature elected city officials enthusiastically wading into the fray, a telling indicator of which media outlet is driving local debates. By contrast, the Register’s own much-touted “community engagement” consists of comments sections that read like Klan rallies.

The Independent not only beats the Register when it comes to informed coverage of day-in, day-out civic affairs, it even bests its competition on delivering breaking news—supposedly the Digital First Media forté.

That point was driven home forcefully during last September’s city-wide primary elections, which saw the first hotly contested race for New Haven mayor in decades. After nine terms in office—yes, nine—the incumbent Democrat was seriously challenged by a vocal community activist gathering support from disaffected liberals and conservative fiscal critics alike.

Adding to the intrigue, the city’s unions (primarily representing employees at Yale University) took a page from the Tea Party’s electoral playbook and ended their traditional backing of the local Democratic Party’s chosen candidates for city council. Instead, angered by the mayor’s previous budget cuts, the unions entered their own members as candidates throughout New Haven’s wards, aiming to unseat both veteran grass-roots figures and party hacks.

Come election day, there was more than enough drama to draw local eyeballs (as well as strategy-plotting progressives across the country) to the Register’s website. Yet by 11 p.m. that evening, as the local TV stations prepared to air victory speeches—and the union hopefuls swept the field, effectively taking control of New Haven’s city hall—the sum total of the Register website’s election night coverage was a single five-sentence article and a suggestion to “check back for more.” If you hunted around a bit, you could also find a 55-second video of the mayor serving up a few dry soundbites. That was it.

Two hours earlier, the New Haven Independent had already run detailed ward-by-ward vote tallies—all on top of a fascinating analysis and plenty of photos. That was on the heels of an article earlier in the afternoon capturing colorful election day scenes.

The jarring contrast begs the question: If the so-called pioneers at Digital First Media can’t even accomplish the bare minimum of journalism, why bother to keep the lights on?

It gets worse.

Digital First Media’s latest chain-wide initiative is Project Thunderdome. According to Digital First Media editor-in-chief Jim Brady, 45 people are being hired for a Manhattan-based bureau which will parachute its staffers into breaking stories all over the country. But don’t call them national correspondents—the company’s job listing prefers to tout them as “SWAT Team” members. (One can only assume dubbing them “word ninjas” wasn’t deemed hip enough.)

“No. 1 is the centralization of the non-local stuff,” Brady told Net News Check. “I’ll take Paul Ryan getting named as Romney’s VP choice as an example. Every one of our papers and websites ran with the story, but we don’t have any papers in Wisconsin and we don’t have any particular expertise in Paul Ryan.” Cue Project Thunderdome’s SWAT Team! “The goal there is to say, OK New Haven Register, we’ve now freed up some bodies by taking a lot of this national and international work off your back. Now go figure out what we can have those three people do in New Haven.”

Apparently, no one clued Brady in to the fact that the Register is already running plenty of Associated Press national and international stories. And it’s hard to imagine that New Haven’s readers are crying out for a Ryan story carrying a Thunderdome byline in lieu of one from the AP wire. So when it comes to running national stories in Digital First’s small-market dailies, why not continue picking up stories off the various wire services? Why duplicate—at considerable added expense to a, lest we forget, bankrupt newspaper chain—what’s already being done?

But Brady wasn’t finished yet. “I think we could all agree that the fate of the New Haven Register doesn’t rest on its coverage of Afghanistan,” he said, “but on its coverage of Yale and New Haven and its surroundings.” On that note, here’s a revolutionary idea: Instead of hiring 45 new SWAT Team members to jet around the country and wade into media scrums alongside CNN camera crews, why not base those 45 staffers at the company’s own local papers whose newsrooms are practically starved for warm bodies? Why not have them dig into their communities and report local stories? After all, by Brady’s own admission, in today’s Internet era, local reporting is the only reason left for the Register—or any of the Journal Register’s newspapers—to exist.

If Brady is still in the dark over how to best deploy those local reporters and “figure out what we can have those three people do in New Haven,” he could always check out the Independent. They’re not only doing exactly what the Register really should be doing on a daily basis, they’re accomplishing it on a total annual budget of roughly $300,000—a sum that should compare favorably to the annual rent on Project Thunderdome’s lower Manhattan offices.

To be fair, sending reporters into their own backyards is hardly as stirring as dreaming up Mad Max-themed projects that send them jetting around the nation whenever a bomb—metaphorical or otherwise—goes off.

A truly local approach that eschews empty buzzwords won’t get you invited to address the Aspen Institute. It won’t draw that much attention from prominent philanthropic foundations looking to fund the New New Thing. It won’t get you saluted as an intrepid “digital apostle” by the breed of consultants who last insisted you put all your content online for free—since accumulating eyeballs and riding the cultural zeitgeist is far more crucial than a viable business model. And it certainly won’t earn you any high-fives from your current hedge-fund owners. But looking at the Register’s website is a reminder that meaningful journalism —whether digital or scratched into a cave wall with a sharp rock—never really factored into their planning at all.


Brett Sokol‘s writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Observer, New York, Slate, and Miami Beach’s Ocean Drive magazine, where he is the arts editor. When in New Haven he favors a corner booth at Louis’ Lunch.