Digital First: What Does It Mean, And Where Will It Take Us?
Posted: 12/13/2011  |  By: Ellen Sterling
By the end of 2010, 41 percent of Americans said they got most of their news about national and international issues online, up 17 percent from 2009. Statistics for other kinds of news were similar, and anecdotal evidence suggests that when the next State of the News Media report from Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism comes out in March 2012, the digital sector will show continued growth.

Print enterprises are well aware that the digital incursion has become a revolution, and as a result many have taken up the cry of “digital first” as their business mantra. But, they all point out that they still aim to serve those audiences who prefer print.

On Sept. 7, 2011, CEO John Paton, who originated the phrase, announced the arrival of Digital First Media Inc., formed for the purpose of managing the products of both Journal Register Co. and MediaNews Group, a total of more than 65 newspapers across the country plus the digital and online offerings of each.

In his Oct. 18, 2011 post on the International Newsmedia Marketing Association (INMA) blog, Adam Burnham, vice president of local sales for Journal Register Co., defined the term. Burnham wrote, “Digital First in its essence is a concept built behind content and audience. As a local news medium, we must deliver our content to our audience using the quickest means at our disposal. No surprise that those means are digital, hence digital first, print last.”

Even people in the news business who haven’t adopted the term “digital first” have adopted much of the philosophy of serving their audience as quickly and as locally as possible.

Print second
Leah S. Dunaief is publisher of Times Beacon Record Newspapers, a chain of seven weekly newspapers located along the north shore of Long Island, N.Y. Computerization came to her enterprise early. “We began with computerized mailing lists in 1981,” she said. “The Internet has been wonderfully liberating.

“Initially, we just put our current issue online. But we learned quickly that the Web is not just a tableau for print. So, while we continue to put each issue online, the website now has an immediacy and liveliness that captures one’s attention like television does.”

But she emphasized that print and digital are not “a competition. Digital is a welcome medium,” she said. “Sooner or later I know we’ll find a way to monetize our Web presence more than we do now. I look at IBM as an example. When Dell began making computers and selling them for less than IBM did, IBM adapted and became a business service organization.”

Dunaief described how the print and digital products she offers complement each other. “Newspapers,” she said, “may get smaller, but they will still be important. If it’s a question of content, the newspapers will always carry the day. But we know that the Internet is a wonderful medium for instant communication. For example, we put up election results immediately after the Board of Elections does. We can carry news of hurricanes, earthquakes and similar events immediately.”

The richer and deeper content carries the print edition. “But, while spot news goes on the Web first, a community paper like ours has more in-depth and relational stories where the focus is on the community,” Dunaief said. “What are the consequences of every incident? How do people relate to each other? A community paper will still do what it has always done best. It will always have the ‘over the back fence’ aspect of what people are talking to each other about.”

Although her website (northshoreoflongisland.com) does carry some advertising, the first major step in monetizing her online presence will be the launch of an online book division where local authors may have their work published. “There will be a paywall around it,” Dunaief said, “but it’s a service that isn’t done here, and I believe there’s a niche for it.”

And, while she agrees with some of the concepts articulated by Burnham in his definition of Digital First, Dunaief has one change. “Let’s make it digital first. Print second, not last.”

Complementary forms
While many readers have adapted easily to digital, there are some, like Rob Goald, a professor of film, who read digital publications — he even writes for one — but still have a strong preference for print.

“I am not a Luddite,” he said. “There’s a certain degree of depth in print newspapers. Even when I’m looking at an article online, I’ll often print that article out and read it on paper. I don’t enjoy reading on a screen as much as I do holding a magazine or a newspaper. I am just not ready to give up print.”

When large newspaper corporations talk about converting to digital, they seem always mindful of the audience who feels as Goald does. Thus, while they move ahead with digital, they strive to improve print and to continue to attract readers and advertisers to both.

From shoppers to magazines, to dailies to weeklies and to books, Morris Publishing Group, a privately held media company, has myriad divisions. Alan English is executive editor of the daily Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle. He said, “Our corporate team, our editors and publishers, have for a long time bought into the idea that our futures will be built on our digital success.

“Two-and-a-half years ago,” he said, “when I was brought on board we were making waves with digital initiatives. It was exciting because Morris clearly understood that digital ventures are the future. I was very impressed with all the investments they were making in the digital arena. They give the editors and publishers berth to experiment and innovate and then adopt those successes for the entire company. They use their newspapers as laboratories for their digital enterprises.”

English said, “Mr. Morris himself believes we have to get ahead of the pack, and we’ve got to get where it’s going. He believes our success is tied to our community. These days if your community is digital you need to serve that community.”

The transition to digital has not been without challenges. “It’s a difficult time financially, a difficult time to change. I spend more than 50 percent of my day on strategy, on pushing forward,” English said. “For example, we’re working on finding efficiencies in legacy content — features we’ve carried for years, like TV listings and stock quotes — to continue using content readers love. The process of producing this content isn’t always efficient. We recognize that and are looking for alternatives.

“For example,” he said, “we’ve recently installed a new front-end system that integrates all the work for digital and print into one system. We’ve refined the processes so the content can be delivered efficiently to either a digital or print platform. We take the savings from these efficiencies and put it into digital.”

Is there a conflict between print and digital? Not to English. He said, “Delivering some of your enterprise digitally ultimately makes the print product better. We’re finding that both formats are greatly helped, because people are living more digital, interactive lives. Digital also means being willing to listen. I think if a journalist isn’t on social networking sites he or she is blocking out potentially great tools for working through a story as it evolves. They’re putting blinders on.”

Morris Communications’ strategy doesn’t list any medium as last. “The Augusta Chronicle is focused on making sure the experience in any format is exactly what people are looking for,” English said. “We’re talking about how to continually improve the print and digital experiences. We know how to produce a print newspaper. We’re finding ways of taking what we’ve learned over the years and leveraging it into new media.”

Because the staff at the Augusta Chronicle is working closely with their community, English said, “We’ve worked hard at identifying what gives advertisers results and, now, our digital revenue is continuing to grow more and more as part of our entire revenue picture.”

When it comes to news, English said he sees major benefits in the digital platforms. “Digital coverage is evolving. Print is a snapshot in time of where that coverage is. We make decisions about what content is emerging and developing online. We decide print coverage based on what people expect in the morning. The first day we print just the facts. Then the story continues to evolve, and digital allows that thread to develop and evolve. Print: edited for context, depth, impact, and presentation.

“In a print edition, people spend more time on news. Online they spend an amazing amount of time on hard-news photo galleries. We had expansive coverage of the funeral of a police officer who was shot in the line of duty, and of a Lady Antebellum concert. People couldn’t get enough of those galleries. Each got about 200,000 page views,” English said.

He added, “It’s encouraging to see the community look at the coverage of a grip-and-grin event and also pay attention to hard news. Both of those are critical parts of a successful community news website.”

English said both print and digital have roles in the future of the news business, just on different terms and time frames.

“Digital First is about considering that your digital platform gets premium content first. It doesn’t get leftovers. More and more people understand that our future is digital.

“But,” he said, “print has a very bright immediate future. We’re seeing great results with added attention to print. We’ve mixed up our international and national coverage by experimenting with wire services other than AP. We’re getting positive reader response in the form of letters and notes to the newspaper.

“In print and digital, we complement ourselves.”

Lessons learned

Wayne Parrish is chief transformation and revenue officer of Postmedia Network, Inc. in Canada. He said, “We know print so well, because The Montreal Gazette has been published since 1778. It covered the founding of Canada.”

Today, however, Parrish’s job is “there to oversee the transformation of the company and the revenue side. As we move from reliance on print, we have to transform the way we operate. Since it involves our products, jobs, and audiences, it’s a process based on a number of projects. Some of these will go on for years, and others are short-term. All are changing the nature of the product.”

With the company’s 12 newspapers in Canada boasting a print readership of about 5 million and about 8 million unique visitors to the digital editions, Parrish said, “We think there’s a real opportunity for companies like ours to move an audience back and forth between the digital and print product. We try to create reasons for them to use print, digital, and mobile. 

“We’re all trying to understand what content is best for each medium. We’re experimenting to find what works best on each platform. We’re learning on the fly.”

Parrish said sales personnel are being retrained to think digitally. “Advertisers,” he said, “have been coming to digital. But if you look at the different categories of advertising, the rates of conversion vary. The real opportunity is to convert local small businesses to digital advertising. Our challenge is to create products that will attract these companies and then to sell those products. The ability to track results is a very compelling selling point from an advertiser’s viewpoint.”

All the working on transforming the company’s products has taught Parrish some lessons. “There are a number of things we’ve learned that we try to embed in all we do.”

When it comes to staff in the transition to digital, Parrish said, “First, work with a sense of urgency. The digital world is changing so quickly. Change has accelerated 100-fold since I’ve been doing this. We have to be able to try and, if necessary, move on quickly. Be comfortable with not knowing what’s next.

“Such people are not that common in legacy companies like ours. To accomplish the transformation, we need people who embrace the future and are willing to take risks.”

In the end, he said, “If we can do the right thing the transition to digital, which will always be evolving, will be smoother.”

Ellen Sterling is an award-winning journalist. A New Yorker, she’s now living in Las Vegas, where she blogs on the Huffington Post, reviews shows and movies, and freelances. Reach her at creativeink@me.com.