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Innovation continues at Digital First with Project Thunderdome

Despite Journal Register Company’s (JRC) recent slide backwards into Chapter 11, Digital First Media heads appear unfazed and continue to plow ahead with projects.

One such undertaking is Project Thunderdome. Digital First, which operates both MediaNews Group and the Journal Register Company, recently launched the project to produce news more efficiently and innovatively.

Although they recently moved into their new digs in New York City, reported Nieman Journalism Lab, the entire operation is something of a work in progress. Similar to an internal wire service with added features, Thunderdome serves as a hub for national and niche content, which will then be syndicated across the network of roughly 175 dailies and 200 nondailies.

According to Thunderdome editor Robyn Tomlin, each newspaper and its online component will be undergoing a redesign, starting with The Middletown Press in Middletown, Conn., and the Register-Citizen in Torrington, Conn. All websites will follow a common design structure, and are slated to begin launching by December. Although content will be dispersed among newsrooms, it may not all look the same, Tomlin noted. Local culture will be taken into account, so a story that might be good for one area might not fit for another. Meanwhile, reporters in specific newsrooms will be able to localize content for their areas.

Thunderdome will also serve as a central area for journalists with specific expertise to collectively share their knowledge. “But beyond that, a big part of what we’re trying to do is build a culture that gives journalists in each of our newsrooms a place to go to when they want to find someone who is an expert in using Storify or is an expert in video … those are all important pieces of expertise,” she said.

The new hub will also employ a curation team, which Tomlin noted is unusual for newspapers. “We are doing things in different ways to be the kind of leaders in innovation,” she said. Digital First has certainly been innovative, particularly the JRC. The Register-Citizen’s newsroom café became a model for engagement and transparency, while the JRC’s Digital Ninja School, where newsroom staff is trained toward applying digital skills and tools on the job, shows dedication to a digital course.

And now, there is Project Thunderdome. When you put all the pieces together, the primary component is efficiency. The goal is to keep redundancy out of the news, while freeing up local reporters to get down and dirty with their coverage. Like most newsrooms across the country, layoffs and cuts have been rampant, so it’s not an uncommon goal. Other news organizations in the past have made headlines when they too decided to streamline their newsrooms, like the Washington Post and Media General.

“Our CEO John Paton has been very emphatic there are two things our company has: we have the largest group of people reporting on the street and largest group of people selling. The point is to definitely preserve and enhance our ability to do that. This is what that is about,” said Tomlin. “The goal is not to centralize all of our efforts; this is really about being smart. I think everyone is already struggling to make do with that they have and this is about trying to make them do it better.”

–Katrina M. Mendolera

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