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July 31, 2012, 10:48 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Still without a team in place, Project Thunderdome gets a surprise test drive

Digital First’s new central command is just beginning to take shape, but its nascent team has already handled its first big story: the shootings in Aurora, Colorado.

Not only are news organizations actually hiring these days, they’re looking to fill new positions. You could, for example, apply to become the first ever SWAT Leader at Project Thunderdome.

What sounds like a gig that’s straight out of Saturday mornings in 1985 is actually a Digital First Media project more than a year in the making. And with a slew of new job listings just posted (and more to come), Thunderdome’s day-to-day operations are beginning to take shape.

The SWAT Leader, I’m told, will be a newsy jack of all trades. Someone who can report, write, edit, and produce. Someone who’s willing to parachute into a faraway town on a moment’s notice. Basically someone who is up for any assignment, and has the skills and enthusiasm to dive in head-first.

That last part is essential for anyone looking to join the Thunderdome team, which will require a basic startup mentality: Be willing to work, play, try, and fail in eight different ways a day. Then show up to work with a smile, ready to do it all again the next day. It isn’t for everyone — and that’s actually the point.

The idea behind Thunderdome has always been to create a new infrastructure that will serve hundreds of local newsrooms still burdened by inefficiencies borne of a bygone era in journalism. (Read what we wrote about it in March 2011.) Here’s how Jim Brady, head of Project Thunderdome, explained the idea last year:

Digital First jointly manages MediaNews Group and Journal Register Company, along with the hundreds of publications and websites that come with them. Thunderdome’s setting out to become a sort of clearinghouse-slash-newsroom, a mission-control center that both coordinates and produces coverage. One major goal will be to eliminate redundancies when a big national story breaks. Instead of having each paper create its own version of a story, the Thunderdome team will have a set of options in place. Kind of like an internal wire service.

“Rather than having all these people do essentially redundant work, why don’t you do it once,” said Robyn Tomlin, who started her job as Thunderdome’s editor earlier this month. “Do it really really well, and do it for print and web, then send it out in a format across this wide network so they can have the value of that expertise. Because the person who is producing the world page is sometimes doing sports, features, entertainment, and obits. By centralizing these functions, we can hopefully do it better — and certainly more efficiently — across the board.”

“Using email, toothpicks, and scotch tape, we tried to pull together essentially an internal wire service…”

Tomlin got her first test a couple of weeks ago when she woke up to the news of a deadly mass shooting at a Colorado movie theater. She was brand new on the job and still didn’t have the Thunderdome team in place. Knowing Aurora was near Denver, Tomlin wanted to immediately notify papers around the country that The Denver Post — MediaNews Group’s flagship paper — was already in full-on breaking news mode.

“So the first thing I try to do is say, ‘How do we try to alert all our papers across the country that Denver is covering that story and we can distribute that information?'” Tomlin told me. “We didn’t even have an accurate email list. One didn’t exist. Nothing that had all the people who needed to know that information right then. So all of the sudden we’ve got to figure out how to put this together right now, today. Using email, toothpicks, and scotch tape, we tried to pull together essentially an internal wire service to distribute the content out of Colorado and also California, because the alleged shooter grew up in California.”

So Tomlin and two Digital First web producers began curating tweets, gathering information, and coordinating communications between newsrooms across the country.

“What I didn’t want was every single newspaper calling Denver and saying, ‘Can we take your stuff?'” Tomlin says. “That wasn’t efficient. So I became sort of that point person who was coordinating with Denver. They took a picture of the [story budget on a] white board and emailed it to me. [Denver] created a Google Doc with their budget, and I was able to send that out to folks.”

As the day went on, Tomlin was sending out copy, Storify embed codes, and generally orchestrating coverage sharing between far-flung newsrooms. Just as Digital First was created as a way for two newspaper companies to combine efforts without merging, Thunderdome is a way for newsrooms to coordinate action while still working as standalone operations.

Tomlin says she ended up glued to her computer — still in her pajamas — all day, her apartment transformed into a “strange bedroom central communications unit.” That’s essentially what Thunderdome is going to be, only in a lower Manhattan office building and with a different dress code. “Just try and connect the dots of this very large group of newspapers across 18 states,” Tomlin said. “Help facilitate communication and sharing, best practices, tools, training, whatever we need to do. We really weren’t ready, and certainly we weren’t prepared to staff it all weekend long, but we did. We figured it out.”

But Thunderdome will be about more than coordinating communication in the wake of major breaking news. A lot of it will be about preparation, and giving newspapers a choice by taking some of the scramble out of the production process. Conceptually, it’s a pragmatic approach. But how can Digital First serve so many papers — some big, some tiny, just like the communities they’re in — and expect that the same content will work for all of them?

“You don’t,” Tomlin said. “You do the best you can. Every site is going to have an elections page on it that’s going to have the nationally managed elections content, but they will also be able to add in their own local content. We’re not going to manage the homepages for these sites just like were not going to make front-page decisions. They can choose what they want to promote. The idea is not to have cookie-cutter coverage. I believe strongly that every local community has a different set of sensibilities. You can’t create a one-size-fits-all. What you can do is try to find as much commonality as you can.”

To do that, Thunderdome needs to recruit the right people. Digital First has posted a dozen job openings in recent weeks, and they include roles like Politics Channel Manager, SWAT Team Leader, Mobile Producer, and Data Manager.

There are basic requirements — experience, excellent writing and editing skills, enthusiasm, a desire to take risks and try new things — but the nuts and bolts of these jobs will be largely up to the people who end up taking them, which is one of the delightful things about working for any news startup. What’s unusual about this particular startup is that it exists within a legacy organization. Tomlin says that her goal is to hire people with the right “journalistic DNA” for the job, then hand them an audience. What they make of it — down to how much they opt to report, curate, produce, assign, etc. — will be up to them.

For now, Digital First is still moving into its New York City office. Tomlin describes the space as open, cubicle-free, and modern — with one exception. Digital First CEO John Paton opted for a centuries-old antique publisher’s desk.

“You walk into this very modern tech-like environment, and over in the corner it’s this old wooden desk, this wonderful anachronism of old and new,” Tomlin says. “To have the CEO, to have him sitting in what is in essence a newsroom in the middle of all this craziness is such a different cultural statement than I think I’ve seen in any legacy media company. Everything is built around this concept that news is at the center and at the heart of what Digital First is trying to do.”

Photo of John Paton at his desk by Robyn Tomlin.

POSTED     July 31, 2012, 10:48 a.m.
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