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The rise of Journal Register Company

Only a few years ago, the Journal Register Company (JRC) was one several newspaper publishers filing for Chapter 11. Like all publishers, adapting in an increasingly digital landscape has been an upward battle. But today, the JRC is considered a pioneer in the industry.

Among the JRC’s initiatives is the news café at the Register Citizen in Torrington, Conn. This open, interactive, community-centric approach to news has been lauded by many. According to JRC group editor Matt DeRienzo, more than two dozen American newspaper companies have visited the newsroom since its launch in 2010. The newsroom has even been host to publishers from foreign lands such as Belgium, Switzerland, and Japan. “Clearly, the concept resonates with companies who are struggling with how to build a relationship with their audience, advertisers and community,” said DeRienzo in an email interview. “The old relationship – based on scarcity of news and information sources – is gone, replaced by a world where the audience can access information and organize with each other without us.”

In early 2010, John Paton took the reins of JRC as CEO. In September 2011, JRC announced the creation of Digital First Media Inc. in conjunction with MediaNews Group. Paton’s digital-first mantra is evident in much of the publishing group’s efforts, and under his leadership, JRC has appeared to thrive. “They are clearly the leaders, their philosophy is digital first and it is a philosophy that is widely but unevenly embraced. We see a lot of people talking about digital first but they [JRC] are plainly are doing the most,” said Ken Doctor, a news analyst and author of “Newsonomics.” “A lot of the change is cultural change. They have a philosophy of what kind of news they want to get out there, they want to be strongly local and appeal to local advertisers.”

The newest component of JRC’s digital-first philosophy is the launch of the Digital Ninja School. Newsroom staff is trained toward applying digital skills and tools on the job. There are five “belts” in the school: Digital Publishing, Social Media, Video, Blogging, and Data Journalism. The staff are paid cash bonuses for participating and earn their belts by showing they have applied the skills and understand the impact it has on the overall audience, noted DeRienzo. “We realized that to truly make the transition from a print newsroom to a digital newsroom, we would have to acquire a whole new set of skills, from top editors, to reporters, to photographers, to copy editors,” he said. “Newsrooms aren’t great about training to begin with. It’s not part of the culture. And we knew this would require far more than the typical laid-back approach of offering some scattered workshops and webinars.”

Although only a pilot project for JRC employees in Connecticut, the Digital Ninja School has a public website with training resources for other journalists within and outside the company to use, noted DeRienzo. If it’s successful, he believes there will be talk of doing something similar at other papers, much like the attention Torrington’s newsroom café project has attracted. “The New Haven Register is selling its massive 200,000-square-foot industrial building and looking to relocate all or part of the newsroom to a similar ‘open’ downtown environment, hopefully within the next year,” he said.

Execution of digital skills is what’s on the horizon at JRC, noted DeRienzo. “For the first time, we’re really focused on metrics, we’re learning new tools and skills to help improve on them, and those metrics tie in to a goal that we can all understand and rally around – delivering more audience and engaged local traffic to support digital ad revenue growth that replaces print losses and helps us get to the ‘crossover’ point,” he said. “For the newsroom, ‘crossover’ means quality journalism is preserved and sustained for a long time to come.”

–Katrina M. Mendolera

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