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What’s Project Thunderdome, you ask? Inside Jim Brady’s new job at Journal Register Company

So Jim Brady, formerly of AOL, washingtonpost.com, and TBD, is now of the Journal Register Company. That’s big news — and not only because it had been an open question where Brady would land after he left TBD in November. As John Paton, JRC’s CEO, put it in a release announcing the news: “The debate of bloggers vs. journalists or citizen journalists vs. professionals is now over. The new business models of news demand we understand and incorporate both.”

Brady “will immediately be responsible for Project Thunderdome,” the release notes, which is an initiative that is — besides being, obviously, one of the most delightfully named projects in the news innovation world — “Journal Register Company’s plan for engaging audience and creating content across all platforms and geographies.”

But what is Thunderdome, exactly? I talked to Brady and Jon Cooper, JRC’s vice president for content, to learn more.

Essentially, they told me, Thunderdome is an attempt to take Journal Register’s current collective of media properties — community newspapers joined at the top by a corporate brand — into an interwoven network. While the project’s ultimately about content (both improving its quality and expanding it), it’s also about production practices: It’s trying, in particular, to create uniform standards across the organization when it comes to content management. Ultimately, Thunderdome will mean a redesign for JRC’s digital platform as well as its print platform, giving JRC’s papers — in print and especially (per JRC’s “digital first, print last” ethos) online — a standard look and feel.

Essentially, Journal Register is “building a news system,” Brady puts it, “as opposed to trying to retrofit one that came out of a different time.”

On the one hand, Thunderdome is about systematization and centralization — and the production-side efficiencies that come from them. “Right now, we operate anywhere from 6 to 8 [CMSes], depending on who you talk to,” Cooper notes — and the reason that number varies is that “we have places that don’t actually have a CMS.”

Those CMS-less properties — gird yourselves, techies — use a Windows folder structure to manage their content. Imagine erasing a coworker’s article, Cooper notes, “because you happen to name your story ‘Fire,’ and I had named my story ‘Fire,’ and I copy over yours.”

So that’s one side of it. But Thunderdome is also about the categorization of content. Much of the efficiency JRC hopes will be gained from the new system will come from the bifurcation of local content and what it calls “common” content — in other words, from distinguishing between information that requires feet-on-the-street reporting and information can be provided by wire services or other more centralized sources. It’s the classic distinction between wire content and original, taken to the next level. So take, for example, content like stocks, weather, comics — things that a journalist might not define as journalism in the strictest sense, but which readers want as part of their news experience. Journal Register, across its 18 daily papers, does over 50,000 of those pages a year, Cooper told me, creating different products for different locations. Sometimes that’s necessary, of course (the weather in Connecticut being different from the weather in Michigan); often, though, it’s simply redundant — a waste of time and resources.

Thunderdome aims to establish a 40/60 — or even 50/50 — ratio of local content to common content. “JRC is a fairly large organization,” Cooper notes, “so we have a decent amount of power that we put behind a project like this.” As Brady puts it, the system will allow the papers “to spend their actual staff time covering local news and embedding themselves in the local community — which they have to do to make themselves successful.”

A big part of Brady’s job at JRC will be to figure out the specifics of that kind of production-side streamlining, determining, for example, content partners — JRC, yesterday, announced a financial-news-content deal with The Street — and staffing the Thunderdome effort with vertical content specialists. Another part of it will be figuring out the audience engagement side of the equation — to put to use the knowledge Brady gained at TBD. “That’s key to us,” Cooper says — “key to Thunderdome, key to our brand expansion, key to our current brands.” Brady’s work won’t just be about “providing leadership to our journalists,” he notes; it’ll also be about “working with our communities — our physical, geographic communities, but also our digital communities.”

Which all sounds eminently reasonable and, well, not Thunderous. So, then: What’s with that name? John Paton named the project, Cooper told me. When he’d visited The Washington Post, someone had talked about the paper’s digital center as “the Thunderdome” — and the name, both epic and tongue-in-cheek at once, came into play as a working title as Journal Register laid out its (also epically named) Ben Franklin Project. The project came out of the basic realization, Cooper says, that “we can’t wait for a unified CMS; we can’t wait for a unified technology to be in place. We have to make it happen sooner.”

It’s that kind of thinking that attracted Brady to Journal Register in the first place. When you’re looking for a new job, he notes, you’re looking at both “the size of the opportunity and the size of the challenge.” For Thunderdome, the size of both is “large.” “Folks have done production hubs; folks have done content bureaus or content sharing,” Cooper says. “But what we’re really looking to do is to empower local journalism. And part of that is to remove the roadblocks to small operations.”

Image by rachelbinx used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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