A day after the Journal Register Company announced bankruptcy (again), I paid a visit to Thunderdome, the rapidly growing Manhattan hub that Digital First launched to help reinvent the way JRC and MediaNews Group newspapers produce the news.
After years of planning, Thunderdome finally exists — it is a physical space occupied by an expanding staff of journalists and salespeople — but it’s just beginning to create an infrastructure to better serve hundreds of local newsrooms across the country. The vision is to alleviate the burden on shrinking newsrooms by streamlining national content, eliminating redundancies, and freeing up local reporters to do the important work they’re uniquely positioned to do. (It’s helpful to think of Thunderdome as an internal wire service.)
For its over-the-top name, turns out Thunderdome’s digs are relatively spartan. The ceiling is low but there’s plenty of natural light. There are no cubicles, and practically nothing on the walls other than a row of big-screen TVs tuned into news stations.
The space is still new enough to lack the odd clutter that makes so many newsrooms look they’re staffed by hoarders. Thunderdome has the feel of a startup (sans foosball table), only one that happens to be on the top floor of a 25-story building in lower Manhattan.
The location of Thunderdome has puzzled some of the people who have been tracking the project since its inception, and it’s a question that was raised again in the wake of JRC’s bankruptcy news. Why pick pricey Manhattan? Why not move into a smaller-but-still-existing newsroom elsewhere in the country? (Check out the comments section of Josh’s story from earlier this week for some of this discussion.)
“Part of it is we already had people in New York,” Digital First editor-in-chief Jim Brady told me. “MediaNews Group is already here. We had a sales force up here. We had temporary office space for JRC. So the additional amount of money we’re spending in New York? If it’s any, it’s nominal. Plus, getting everybody in one place — sales and editorial in the same place, which may freak certain newsrooms out — it’s also essential for the future of the company.”
Part of helping local newsrooms leverage resources will be to provide original reporting, and “you can cover a lot if you’re in New York because a lot tends to happen in this city,” Brady says. The other part, he says, is proximity to content partners, many of whom are headquartered in Manhattan.
There’s also the idea that the city will draw some of the best journalistic talent, which Digital First will need it if Thunderdome has any chance of succeeding. “You want to be in a position to get the best possible people you can,” Brady said. “I’d love to get in an argument with anybody who says there isn’t a lot of journalistic talent in New York City.”
As for the bankruptcy, Brady says Thunderdome is “plowing ahead,” and that nothing will change in day-to-day operations there or at JRC papers.
“It’s a scary word, and any time you open up a process like this, you don’t know how it’s going to play out,” Brady said. “This is a process we have to go through. It’s necessary for the future survival of the company. Any jobs that were open on Tuesday are open on Thursday, and any projects that were active on Tuesday are active on Thursday. We think this is part of the future of the company — what we’re doing at Thunderdome — and we also think the future is getting our financial structure in place. That’s what this is all about.”