Saturday, March 26, 2011

From Bankrupt to Thriving

What has happened at the Journal Register Company is nothing short of a miracle.

Two years ago, the company was de-listed from the NYSE and mired in bankruptcy, the victim of crushing debt brought on by rapacious acquisition and the great recession. At that time, it was the fifth largest newspaper company in America, but perhaps its biggest distinction was that it was also the worst newspaper company in America.

Within six months, the JRC emerged from Chapter 11 as a privately held company and now it's doing so well -- a $41 million profit in 2010 -- that CEO John Paton announced on his blog that not only is he handing out bonuses to his executives, but he's awarding an extra week's pay to the company's employees.

Locally, the JRC owns the Register-Citizen of Torrington.

Standing Disclosure: This blog is linked on the R-C's homepage through an agreement with the publisher, Matt DeRienzo. In an act of voluntary reciprocation, I link to the R-C here and use it as a source whenever possible. However, the paper exercises no editorial control over this blog. According to my stat counter, is by far the largest single source of page views for Devil's Advocate.

I give Paton and his staff credit. They have pursued what they call a "digital-first" business model that emphasizes the web over print. And at a time when many newspapers are struggling to wring revenue out of their websites, the JRC is making money by posting content as soon as it becomes available and arming its reporters with Flip video cameras.

The R-C has moved its headquarters to much larger digs and opened up a newsroom cafe, community media lab, community journalism school and a local news library, free and open to the general public. The paper has opened its daily news staff meeting to the public and streams those meetings live on its website.

Now, they just need to work on nailing down their facts and paying attention to details. The Register-Citizen is a far better paper than it used to be. It is far more transparent than most papers and has an unusually strong policy on corrections. But much of its staff is unfamiliar with the region, so misspellings and lack of context in stories are common.

Perhaps editorial oversight could also be strengthened. To wit: the paper published a letter to the editor concerning my employer that was signed by a dead man. People, including journalists, are human and they'll make mistakes. Someone, though, clearly dropped the ball and thoroughly embarrassed the company.

Be that as it may, the company and the R-C are clearly headed in the right direction. I wish Matt DeRienzo and his staff the best of luck. Any newspaper that has found a way to make good money from the Internet is doing something right.

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