John Paton: Business model of newspapers is irretrievably broken

John Paton
INMAJohn Paton

The marketplace value of traditional journalism is zero. The business model of newspapers is irretrievably broken. And anyone who thinks differently is bringing a knife to a gunfight.

So says the man who runs a media empire that includes the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

John Paton is CEO of Digital First, a venture created to operate the holdings of two struggling media companies: Journal Register Co. and MediaNews Group (which owns the Pioneer Press). Digital First describes itself as “a local news powerhouse with more than 880 multi-platform products in 18 states serving more than 57 million Americans per month.”

In recent years, Paton has become a powerful voice in the debate over the direction of the news industry. That may be because most of the news industry is battered and disoriented by the twin disasters that have befallen it over the last decade: the destruction of its business model by the Internet, coupled with the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Under those circumstances, anyone willing to stake out a firm position and advocate it vigorously is bound to become a thought leader – and Paton has been an unusually vigorous advocate for his view that the future of journalism is digital.

In a recent address to the Canadian Journalism Foundation, Paton made his case. (Text of his address is here.) Among his observations:

  • “There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the Internet just broke.”
  • “What we know and what we traditionally do has finally found its value in the marketplace and that value is about zero.”
  • “‘You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone’ is not much of a business model.”
  • “Investors don’t buy into myth. They buy into math. If you want investors to take a long-term view on our industry or our companies, then you better give them a long-term plan that works.”

His solution

Paton’s solution is to focus on digital media above all else. Digital and print can work together, but digital has to be in charge. That’s a tough sell in an industry that still relies on print advertising for 80 to 90 percent of its revenue, but Paton hasn’t backed away from his position.

He also believes in getting regular people more involved in creating and delivering the news, breaking down the distinction between professional journalist and citizen journalist.

Regular people are already delivering news through Facebook, Twitter and other social media, he reasons. So why not give them a greater role – and hence a greater stake in – the traditional media that are fighting to maintain relevance in the digital age?

I haven’t subscribed to the full Paton, but I do think he’s a voice well worth listening to. Yet I can’t help but notice that the Pioneer Press hasn’t dramatically expanded its digital range. It may be that there hasn’t yet been time for Paton’s innovations to filter down.

But if Paton doesn’t put his theories into practice at the properties he controls, who will?

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Comments (8)

  1. Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 03/12/2012 - 10:18 am.

    Considering that the difference between a professional journalist and a citizen journalist has become almost negligible these days, I’d say that Paton is, at least in part, right.

    And that’s not a good thing.

    While there may be some very good citizen journalists out there, all ethics related to citizen journalism are internal to the journalist–no professional ethics required. Of course, the rub is that “traditional” journalism has all but done away with professional journalistic ethics. The “news,” particularly on TV, is no more thoughtful than a political rant posted on Facebook by yours truly. Of course, my rants are available for free. No professional journalist to pay, while still raking in the advertising dough because advertisers recognize that popular news is more popular than real news and people simply want to be entertained, not informed.

    Alas, Mr. Paton has revealed that he doesn’t believe in the continued existence of real journalism. He has assessed the species as critically endangered and, like the ornithologists of old, gotten his specimen to stuff before it’s gone forever.

  2. Submitted by Tim Walker on 03/12/2012 - 01:29 pm.

    Traditional journalism …

    … has failed because despite delivering 20-30 pages of newsprint to my door every morning, the Pioneer Press (I’m a subscriber) is devoid of news that really matters to me.

    In the service of “objective journalism,” the PiPress and all other mainstream newspapers deliver paplum designed not to offend anyone.

    Politicians lie to us daily, and the newspapers pass along their spewing lies to us daily without any critical analysis.

    Fourth Estate? Bah. Afflicting the comfortable? Hardly. Acting as a check to government power? Dream on.

    Not in the last 50 years!

  3. Submitted by Rosalind Kohls on 03/12/2012 - 01:57 pm.


    The willingness to pay for something to read has declined significantly in the past 50 years. It shows in the number of books and magazines purchased, as well as in newspapers. If news sites on the Internet become only for subscribers, then their readership will drop too. This also is why texting is more popular than emailing. There’s less to read. Advertisers have noticed this lack of interest of reading in the public, and are waiting to see how publishers respond.

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/12/2012 - 02:15 pm.

    Au revoir, fourth estate

    Good piece, John…

    Points to Rachel Kahler, again. This time, regarding the differences, or the increasing lack thereof, between “professional” and “amateur” journalists, especially when it comes to ethics. Plenty of bloggers are themselves quite ethical people. Plenty of bloggers wouldn’t recognize ethics were those ideas to hit them between the legs. It does seem odd that someone as deeply involved in professional journalism as Mr. Paton would essentially do as Rachel as suggested, and reveal that he doesn’t really believe in the continued existence of real journalism.

    While I don’t quite buy the full Tim Walker treatment, I’d still agree to a somewhat more tepid version. A Minneapolis resident, I’ve subscribed to the ‘Strib since I moved here, and have been disappointed far more often than I’ve been delighted. No Fourth Estate seems evident, even less a notion of afflicting the comfortable, and not nearly enough digging into the conflicts of interest and sheer lunatic wing-nuttery of far too many in government. Instead, there’s page after page of sports coverage – a significant commitment of scarce resources being devoted to the genuinely trivial.

    So, every day, I spend some time in front of my computer screen, reading several online sources of both actual news (along with their own brand of trivia, which is usually show-biz-related) and analysis. Obviously, MinnPost is among them, but MinnPost’s focus is understandably local and regional, so for national events and analysis, I go elsewhere. A long-time subscriber to The New Republic, I’m going to be interested in seeing what happens to that venerable magazine – which grows thinner and more expensive almost by the week – now that it’s been purchased by a gazillionaire co-founder of Facebook.

  5. Submitted by Teresa Fishel on 03/12/2012 - 04:01 pm.

    Epic 2014

    Eight years ago a video was made outlining the eventual demise of news reporting, Epic 2014. You can see the video online or read about it at Wikipedia It is an eight minute presentation on the future of news reporting that basically forecasts that everyone will be a contributor, as suggested by Paton. However, if everyone becomes a reporter, two individuals can have very different perceptions of real events. Part of professional journalism is to check the facts, conduct interviews, collect data. That is why newspapers are kept as the historical public record. The problem with newspapers is that when there were many more local papers, they were intended to serve the local municipalities and keep citizens informed. However, the gradual consolidation and elimination of smaller newspapers, led to news that focused on large metropolitan areas, but people couldn’t really find out what is going on in their neighborhoods through the one remaining metropolitan paper. While I subscribe to both the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press, it is usually in the Highland Villager (local neighborhood paper) that I find the most relevant information for my part of St. Paul. And then, there is MinnPost where I can obtain another source of information by individuals who are professionals and report with different perspectives on local events. It’s also where I can find out that there is an online organization trying to help neighbors connect, electronically – MinnPost may be electronic, but it is staffed by professional journalists, and thus will always be a more trusted source by me than someone’s Facebook posting or personal blog.

  6. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/12/2012 - 06:54 pm.

    And then there’s this:

    “Americans continue to express near-record-low confidence in newspapers and television news — with no more than 25% of Americans saying they have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in either.”

    And to rub salt into your wounds …

    Poll: Fox most trusted name in news

  7. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 03/13/2012 - 12:55 am.

    I think the corporate ownership model

    that has replaced family, or at least locally, owned newspapers has done as much harm as online competition.

    Corporate owners who buy up hundreds of local papers, or even just a couple of larger city newspapers, have forced those papers to lay off reporting staff by the hundreds, leaving only the very largest with correspondents in other countries. And the StarTribune has probably not been the only newspaper to fire its ombudsman and its copy editors to save a few bucks. The bottom line is all that matters for this kind of owner, and being the owner it takes more and more of the income for itself while leaving ever less for the individual papers to invest in their own improvement.

    I wish every paper could be like the employee-owned Guardian, thoroughy independent of corporate or any other outside pressure — and therefore probably one of the most trusted news sources in the English speaking world.

  8. Submitted by Joe Musich on 03/13/2012 - 08:20 pm.

    We Donnesbury ?

    Okay citizen journalists read the disclaimer by Nancy Barnes at the strib for not printing the real Donnesbury strips this week. She begins the second paragraph by stating “We believe the the original strips planned this week regarding Texas abortion laws contained inappropriate material for family reading.” I guess what gets me is the right out the box she is very clear about who’s paper this is. Where does an informed citizenry fit into that we?

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