John Paton to news execs: Abandon the gatekeeper model

If there was an Uncle Sam-style campaign to recruit media executives into the “digital first” movement, John Paton would probably win the role of poster boy in a landslide. Even before he became the CEO of the giant MediaNews Group chain, Paton was calling on the media industry to give up its attachment to print and embrace the web and digital media — and he reiterated that message in a fire-and-brimstone speech to a journalism group in Toronto, Ontario recently. The bottom line, according to Paton, is that the time for deliberation is over: media entities of all kinds must give up the “information gatekeeper” model, he said, or they will surely perish.

The MediaNews Group chief executive (who got his start in journalism working at a tabloid newspaper based in Toronto) started his talk off with a bang by saying that the newspaper industry and journalism as a whole are more at risk from “crappy newspaper executives” than from any changes that have been wrought by the Internet. Their refusal to try and adapt to the new digital reality, Paton said, is “like aging ingénues… declaring they can still play Juliette. And nobody has the heart to break it to them.” Paton added:

[W]orse still [are] mediocre journalists, wrapping themselves in the flag of long-form journalism, to deride the value of social media as a reporting tool… and then having to watch them use that ignorance to dismiss the phenomenon of participatory journalism. And while these false, zero-sum arguments play themselves out, Rome burns.

Since 2005, Paton reminded his audience, the U.S. newspaper industry has lost “more than 60 percent of its advertising revenue and so many jobs no one can accurately count them,” and new platforms are targeting customers in such precise ways that “we print folks are effectively taking a knife to a gunfight.” Instead of building paywalls around their content and criticizing the rise of social-media tools, the MediaNews CEO said that newspapers should spend more time trying to understand “how professional journalists can come together with the people we used to call the audience.”

Traditional media needs to shed its assumptions, Paton says

Paton also referred to media analyst and journalism professor Clay Shirky’s essay on the future of newspapers from last year, in which Shirky argued that the old-media model these entities are based on is fundamentally flawed in a digital age, and that “there is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the Internet just broke.” So what are media companies to do? Paton says they must rethink some long-held views about what a newspaper is supposed to do, and get rid of many of these assumptions, including:

  • “We are the gatekeepers of information.”
  • “That we are the agenda setters and that we decide what news is and what is not.”
  • “That we keep the Outside world outside and only let in the chosen few – people like us.”

Paton said the uncomfortable fact is that “we have entered a new era where what we know and what we traditionally do has finally found its value in the marketplace and that value is about zero.” And what does a newspaper chain do in that kind of environment? The MediaNews Group CEO says he plans to roll out the same changes he introduced as part of a digital-first model at the Journal-Register Co. chain — including a “community newsroom” that builds engagement with readers, and a focus on using social tools to distribute content in as many different ways as possible.

Sharing equals influence, and influence is what advertisers want

Those efforts, which Paton has said in the past are having a positive effect on the Journal-Register chain’s bottom line, are designed to take advantage of the web instead of trying to hide behind a paywall, the Media News CEO said:

One of the reasons I am so stern on paywalls and other walled gardens is because I firmly believe that in the future content will go to the audience and not the other way around. Smart, original content, tagged with advertising will gain value by being shared through networks. Shared content equals influence. And influence in the new ecosystem equals engagement. And engagement equals value to those advertisers and others trying to reach that engaged audience.

Paton’s criticisms of the traditional newspaper business may be uncomfortable for industry executives to hear, but I think his focus is the right one. Paywalls like the one the New York Times installed last year may produce some extra revenue, but they will not be enough to make a dent in the bottom line of most newspapers as advertising continues to fall — and in that sense, as I’ve argued before, they are more like a wall of sandbags designed to try and stem the rising tide than they are a true digital strategy. The New York Times needs a lot more than just a paywall if it is to remain relevant and survive in a digital world.

The distributed model that Paton describes is much like the approach The Guardian has taken with its “open platform,” which offers its content to developers and services via an open API, and is designed to be able to monetize that content wherever it appears, instead of trying to hide it behind a paywall. Former Washington Post managing editor Raju Narisetti and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis have both talked about a “reverse paywall” that could reward regular readers who engage with a newspaper, instead of penalizing them by charging them money.

The bottom line, Paton says, is that media executives of all kinds have to start learning from and being open to the potential of digital and social media, instead of always seeing it as a threat that needs to be defended against. As the MediaNews CEO put it, telling readers “you’re gonna miss us when we’re gone” isn’t much of a business model.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Klearchos Kapoutsis, George Kelly and Zarko Drincic