Project Thunderdome: Coming To A Theater Near You

23 Mar

A LONE NEWS-GATHERING ORGANIZATION SEARCHING FOR A NEW BUSINESS MODEL ... A TRIBE OF LOST PUBLISHERS WAITING FOR A HERO ... IN AN INDUSTRY BATTLING TO SURVIVE, THEY FACE ADVERTISERS DETERMINED TO STRAY.
HOLD OUT FOR JOHN PATON. THIS IS HIS GREATEST ADVENTURE.

 
AS PROJECT THUNDERDOME moves closer to becoming a reality, let’s take a look at it. Always a good place to start:

WHAT IS IT?

In a nutshell, it’s centralizing production of non-local content. In a post titled News Media’s New Role As Both Medium And Messenger In A World Of Partnerships on his blog in December, Digital First CEO John Paton wrote:

By centralizing all non-local content creation and production we are able to reduce costs while putting more resources back into local coverage increasing what is already an important competitive advantage.

Digital First Editor in Chief Jim Brady, who is heading up the project, put it this way to Street Fight in October:

We can’t have people at 18 different papers finding, editing and paginating a story about the war in Afghanistan, or a movie review or a Wimbledon roundup. We have to find a way to provide that information centrally to our papers so that they can focus on local issues and coverage.

That centrally produced content is for both print and online. As Brady told the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers:

… We’re creating a centralized team to produce that content for all of the local papers and their websites; that will free up a lot of the resources in the building to go back out on the streets and report, as opposed to doing production work.

WHEN WILL IT START OPERATING?

Now, for parts of it. As Brady said in a Q&A with Street Fight on March 13:

What is the status of Thunderdome?

We’re starting to roll out some verticals like transportation. We’re going to launch a health section in the next couple of days. We’re going to roll out one a month for the next six months or so. We’re starting to hire staff who are helping get it up and running, but it’s not in its full form yet.

How far along are you in the transformation? Can you give a percentage?

Thunderdome is going to be a huge part of what we do in the next few months even if it’s not fully rolled out. A lot of the products that we’re going to build out of Thunderdome are already in play and in the process of being built. We’re bringing in a new content management system that’s already in half the JRC papers and it will be in the MediaNews papers before long. What we have is a significant amount of large, game-changing projects in the pipeline right now. In terms of percentage, I don’t know, I think we still have 75% of the way to go before all of those things are out the door, but we’ve made a lot of progress in the last six months and in the last three especially.

And Project Thunderdome apparently is located in New York City.

HOW WILL IT AFFECT JOBS?

According to Paton, not much, as those people formerly in production roles would be reassigned to local work. That’s just counting bodies — it sounds like job duties could change for some people. As he told the American Journalism Review:

We have hundreds and hundreds of people in production. If you were producing 18 dailies centrally, you’d be doing it with less people and could then repurpose them back into the community and create more local content.

HASN’T THIS BEEN DONE BEFORE?

Yes. As Jon Cooper, a vice president with Digital First, told Nieman Journalism Lab:

Folks have done production hubs; folks have done content bureaus or content sharing, but what we’re really looking to do is to empower local journalism. And part of that is to remove the roadblocks to small operations.

How The Denver Post fits into the puzzle isn’t wholly clear. I’m sure details will be forthcoming.

And of course, some are less optimistic, such as this comment on Street Fight:

Thunderdome sounds like an attempt to make generic content to reward their masters at Alden Global Capital. Lay off as many people as you can, create canned content and then, well, we never got around to local coverage because its, well, been a tough economy. That’s been the Media News playbook for years. John Paton just wants to do it without all that expensive newspaper (and people).

In the meantime, sit back, relax and cue up a little Tina Turner.

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