Newspapers Are “Irretrievably Broken”

March 13, 2012

John Paton, CEO of the company that owns the Pioneer Press. Credit: INMA

The marketplace value of traditional journalism is zero. The business model of newspapers is irretrievably broken. And anyone who thinks differently is bringing a knife to a gunfight.

So says the man who runs a media empire that includes the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

John Paton is CEO of Digital First, a venture created to operate the holdings of two struggling media companies: Journal Register Co. and MediaNews Group (which owns the Pioneer Press).  Digital First describes itself as “a local news powerhouse with more than 880 multi-platform products in 18 states serving more than 57 million Americans per month.”

In recent years, Paton has become a powerful voice in the debate over the direction of the news industry. That may be because most of the news industry is battered and disoriented by the twin disasters that have befallen it over the last decade: the destruction of its business model by the Internet, coupled with the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Under those circumstances, anyone willing to stake out a firm position and advocate it vigorously is bound to become a thought leader – and Paton has been an unusually vigorous advocate for his view that the future of journalism is digital.

In a recent address to the Canadian Journalism Foundation, Paton made his case. Among his observations:

  • “There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the Internet just broke.”
  • “What we know and what we traditionally do has finally found its value in the marketplace and that value is about zero.”
  • “ ‘You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone’ is not much of a business model.”
  • “Investors don’t buy into myth. They buy into math. If you want investors to take a long-term view on our industry or our companies, then you better give them a long-term plan that works.”

Paton’s solution is to focus on digital media above all else. Digital and print can work together, but digital has to be in charge. That’s a tough sell in an industry that still relies on print advertising for 80 to 90 percent of its revenue, but Paton hasn’t backed away from his position.

He also believes in getting regular people more involved in creating and delivering the news, breaking down the distinction between professional journalist and citizen journalist.

Regular people are already delivering news through Facebook, Twitter and other social media, he reasons. So why not give them a greater role – and hence a greater stake in – the traditional media that are fighting to maintain relevance in the digital age?

I haven’t subscribed to the full Paton, but I do think he’s a voice well worth listening to. Yet I can’t help but notice that the Pioneer Press hasn’t dramatically expanded its digital range. It may be that there hasn’t yet been time for Paton’s innovations to filter down.

But if Paton doesn’t put his theories into practice at the properties he controls, who will?

This is John Reinan’s weekly marketing column for