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Digital First Media changes direction

ThunderboltpicLike other experimental local news entities, the media industry has been watching the projects of Digital First Media (DFM) since its founding in 2011. The media group, which manages Media General and Journal Register Company, launched one such innovation called Project Thunderdome toward the end of 2012. Now, the initiative in efficiency is coming to an end. And with it, key figures are leaving.

The point of Project Thunderdome was to streamline non-local coverage of the company’s 75 newspapers and provide digital elements such as graphics and videos, all of which it would distribute to its papers like an internal news wire. But earlier this week, the company announced it was dismantling Thunderdome and cutting jobs. Among those let go was DFM digital transformation editor Steve Buttry, only months into Project Unbolt, which was launched in January and aimed to change the company’s print habits to more digital practices. In addition to Buttry’s exit, DFM editor Jim Brady and Thunderdome editor Robyn Tomlin have decided to leave the semi-sinking ship. According to USAToday.com, some of the work will be redistributed to DFM’s regional newspapers.

News industry analyst Ken Doctor noted that the breaking down of Thunderbolt signifies that Alden Global Capital, DFM majority owner, may be readying its properties for sale. “Closing Thunderdome is just part of a major north-of-$100-million cost cutting initiative that is putting the best glow on some tough financials,” wrote Doctor.

The first hit to DFM seemed to happen last month when it was announced 24 positions were being eliminated. As we saw with the Orange County Register, Patch.com and TBD.com — which launched to great acclaim in 2010 and fizzled out in 2012 — when innovative models make big changes, layoffs and the changing of direction always seem to herald a coming end. But DFM CEO John Paton said in a statement that change is just a part of the game. “Media changes very fast these days and nothing changes faster than digital.” Meanwhile, Buttry said on his blog that he didn’t believe that Thunderdome was given the chance to be successful.

David Coates, managing editor of newspaper content at Vocus Media Research Group, noted a part of the problem comes down to figuring out a local news model that works. “Well, this just proves that CEO John Paton, who is smarter than most when it comes to digital media, isn’t King Midas. Gathering and reporting local news isn’t as easy as everyone thinks,” said Coates. “AOL’s Patch proved that, and now Digital First Media is proving it too. Project Thunderdome was a great idea in theory, but so are most ideas until they are put into practice. Local and community news is a completely different animal that no one has figured out how to tame.”

 

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