The Collapse of Thunderdome

In 2012 Digital First Media (DFM), the company that managed both Journal Register Company and MediaNews Group until the two were merged under DFM in 2013, launched Project Thunderdome; an ambitious effort to establish something of an internal wire service among the company’s papers that would provide centralized content to DFM’s 75 newspapers.

The project was conceived as a way of catapulting DFM papers into the Digital Age. One of Digital First Media’s goals, oddly enough, is to put “digital first” when creating content. DFM CEO John Paton has made a name for himself by ardently supporting this viewpoint.

The company had lofty expectations for the project: “Thunderdome is central to Digital First Media’s future and will fuel the company’s growth,” reads the Project’s “About” page. Jon Cooper, Vice President of the Journal Register Company, told the Nieman Journalism Lab in 2011 that major goals of the project included “providing leadership to our journalists” and that Thunderdome was about “working with our communities — our physical, geographic communities, but also our digital communities.”

Earlier this month after two years of service, the project was dismantled, the primary reason for the closing being money. DFM was looking to cut $100 million in costs and Project Thunderdome’s cancelling saved $5 million per year. While Thunderdome and DFM’s digital-centric approach to journalism resulted in increased online ad revenue for the company, this did not offset the company’s print revenue loss, indicating how the success of digital news is often linked to the success of that company’s print news.

Some journalists who were a part of the project were confused by it. According to another article by the Nieman Journalism Lab earlier this month, some local reporters felt the traffic to Thunderdome pieces was unremarkable. They also felt local newspapers should have a focus on local news and that the nation-focused articles Thunderdome churned out took away from that.

Chris O’Brien, formerly of the San Jose Mercury Sun, commented on that same article, saying that “it’s been less than clear to me what Thunderdome was and what DFM was trying to do in general.” O’Brien attributes this confusion to the way his paper was run. The Mercury Sun was a part of Bay Area News Group which, in turn, was a part of MediaNews Group; when it came down to running the paper, some decisions were made by one group and others made by the other one. With the inclusion of DFM in 2011, a third group now had hearsay in the papers’ direction. In his comment, O’Brien says that these groups were “not always in sync,” which led to once simple matters becoming complicated. He offers this anecdote:

“I was part of a group at the Merc trying to relaunch our tech blog in 2012. The blog, started locally, had been moved to a corporate server in Denver. It took months for someone to give us a password to access the blog. Then more weeks to have it moved back to a local server so we could update the template and re-launch it. What I thought would take a few days, took 8 months.”

O’Brien thinks much of the confusion could have been adverted if Digital First Media and MediaNews Group had merged earlier as opposed to trying to keep the two separate.

So, what has Thunderdome accomplished?

DFM had a taste of what the project would be like in July 2012, before a Thunderdome staff even existed, when Thunderdome editor Robyn Tomlin used Denver Post material on the Aurora shootings in other papers. Tomlin had the Post create a Google Doc full of information on the shooting which was thus sent to other DFM papers. This is one of the first successes of the project. O’Brien also notes in the same comment that I mentioned above that DFM’s prioritization of digital journalism made many local managers who once “only talked about print” begin to take heed of digital journalism as well. This he views as a positive impact of DFM management. As the project progressed, the Thunderdome team produced many promising pieces like Firearms in the Family, Decoding the Kennedy Assassination, and an interactive March Madness Bracket Advisor. This video also highlights some of the project’s other creations as well. John Paton’s blog says that the company learned a lot about “data journalism, video production, website and mobile developments” from Thunderdome as well.

Moving forward, Thunderdome’s duties will likely be handed to local journalists while those stationed at Thunderdome’s headquarters in New York City will lose their jobs. The Nieman article dated April 2nd also says to “expect regional auctions of DFM properties” though none have yet appeared on the market.

Former DFM editor-in-chief Jim Brady says Thunderdome’s demise is the latest example of companies withdrawing their support on an experimental digital product because the company was going through tough times. Brady was also a part of TBD.com, a failed Washington, D.C. venture that focused on using social media journalism. Brady says newspapers have to “seesaw resources” between print and digital, and that all of these failures are a product of experimentation with that seesaw. While Thunderdome’s downfall will likely deter some newspapers from experimenting in digital journalism further, such experimentation is necessary for newspapers to find the proper balance on this seesaw.

The latest of these journalistic experiments comes from Advance Publications, publisher of The Star-Ledger, The Times of Trenton, The Jersey Journal, and Staten Island Advance in the form of the NJ Advance Media, which was prophetically announced a week before Thunderdome’s collapse. The new company aims to provide centralized content, advertising, and marketing services to the Advance’s different newspapers.

Sound familiar?