At Digital First, What 'Unbolting' Really Means

Digital First Media’s Project Unbolt is the company’s effort to throw the old print mindset out the window once and for all and fundamentally change the way its newsrooms operate. Signs of what that might look like are already surfacing at DFM papers like The Daily Camera and The Daily Freeman.

DFM CEO John Paton

You have to give it to John Paton: The man has a way with names and very public baptisms.

He started with Digital First Media, the newspaper company rechristened under his direction as CEO. Then came Thunderdome, the name bestowed on the company’s downtown New York offices and the central digital nervous system for its 75 daily newspapers. Last week, he tipped the latest, “Project Unbolt,” DFM’s initiative to pry the processes of newsgathering and publishing away from print-logged thinking once and for all.

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There’s a through line in these names that straddles the bluntly literal, the post-apocalyptic and a penchant for Olympian theatricality. With each, Paton has summoned a crowd, thrown down a gauntlet of reinvention and proclaimed, “We’re going first.”

For Unbolt, that direction is a 180-degree turn and trot away from any vestigial print-minded practices and toward a digital-only workflow. The program will be piloted at four DFM papers, The New Haven Register in Connecticut; The News-Herald in Willoughby, Ohio; The El Paso Times in Texas; and The Berkshire Eagle in Pittsfield, Mass. At its helm will be Steve Buttry, the company’s digital transformation editor and widely read news futurist blogger in his own right.

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DFM's Steve Buttry
But what do these kinds of workflow changes really come down to? Who at DFM is holding the machetes, hacking the first traces of a path into this purely digital future? And what should other media companies be looking for to steal for their own playbooks in terms of concrete practices with measurable results?

The early answers are surfacing among editors leading the project and the work of DFM’s more independent experimenters, some of whom are working at papers outside of the pilot. All of them are pointing to questions that, sooner or later, every journalist working in the digital age will have to squarely face. The biggest one: Is a story the final product of the reporting process?

For his part, Buttry has already laid down Unbolt’s broad strokes and first steps. There’s a heavy emphasis on live coverage. “We’re pretty good in most of our newsrooms at covering big events live,” he says. He points to the Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of a 2012 theater shooting by flagship paper The Denver Post as convincing evidence of that claim.

But that acumen needs to extend beyond breaking news to more quotidian events such as town meetings and high school sports, Buttry says, where immediacy can be just as paramount.

And harder to change is workflow on the routine daily story, he says. Take a newsworthy report that comes out in the morning, for instance, drawing a journalist into several hours of background work gathering context and reaction. What’s the rebooted pathway there?

“Do you post the essence of the report at 11 o’clock to catch the lunch crowd and update it two or three times as you get some interviews or find a different report that contradicts or elaborates on it?” Buttry says. “We gather way more content than we put into a newspaper story, and there are some people with every story that we do who care about a lot more than what we publish.”

So what to do? Have the writer trot out iterations of a piece-in-progress throughout the day flagged with “updated” notices? More avid readers might be appreciative. But not every diner in a restaurant cares to see the chef running into the dining room with a half-cooked entrée in the skillet, chirping, “Look how it’s coming along!”

Many of us would just like to eat our lunch and be on our way, thanks very much.

Buttry is fond of evoking a question from DFM advisory board member and media prognosticator Jeff Jarvis: “Is the story now a process and not a product?”

Well, sometimes, Buttry says. And a big part of Unbolt is going to try to suss out just how much the contemporary news consumer has a taste for each, along with where and how often editors need to intermediate around the developing content.

Unbolt also has cobwebs it wants to shake loose, one of its participating editors’ first priorities. “We’re trying to eliminate the head trash in the top editors still saying, ‘I think we need to hold that story because we don’t have enough room on page A3 tomorrow,’” says Matt DeRienzo, DFM’s editor for Connecticut, whose 60,000-circulation daily New Haven Register will lead the pilot.

“That incremental change in trying to convert print people to digital has worked to an extent, and through attrition and replacing people we have brought more digital skills in,” DeRienzo says. “We need to go further than that.”

“We certainly have made huge strides, but we’re not nearly where we need to be,” agrees Tricia Ambrose, executive editor of The News-Herald, a pilot paper, and The Morning Journal in Ohio.


Comments (3) -

Joey Kulkin posted over 3 years ago
This is a great graf: So what to do? Have the writer trot out iterations of a piece-in-progress throughout the day flagged with “updated” notices? More avid readers might be appreciative. But not every diner in a restaurant cares to see the chef running into the dining room with a half-cooked entrée in the skillet, chirping, “Look how it’s coming along!”
Steve Buttry posted over 3 years ago
If you're going to use a dining analogy, I would say that most of us don't eat just one meal a day. We may have 2-3 meals, some snacks, an occasional cup of coffee or soft drink. Some people are on a diet. Some teen-agers seem to eat constantly. We want to feed people what they want when they want it. We're glad to have them look in the dining room if they're interested, but that's not what Project Unbolt is about. It's about feeding the varying appetites people have for news and information.
Michael Depp posted over 3 years ago
Steve, I agree. Where I live, we have a number of restaurants where people can sit with a window on the kitchen (in one you can even dine right in the middle of it). It all depends on how much one cares about preparation and process, rather than just product. For those who just want the story, they'll probably want to see the "final" story clearly visually distinguished and separate from more deconstructed or extended elements for which they don't have the patience. It will be interesting to see what your metrics tell you about how many readers want what, and I know other media companies will be grateful if you share those takeaways.


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