Lessons Learned From Project Thunderdome
It’s been about three months now since Digital First Media’s ambitious Project Thunderdome met its end. Sure, there were still a handful of staffers there up until July 1, but the spirit and the mission of Thunderdome died in a New York conference room in early April. I know, because it was my project and I was one of those who had to kill it.
What struck me about many of the obituaries written about Thunderdome was — as is frequently the case when the media covers itself — the desire
for black and white in what is largely a gray world. Obviously, Thunderdome’s demise was a bad thing for all who worked there, and certainly not a positive development for DFM in its push to innovate editorially, financially and culturally. But a lot of good came out of Thunderdome as well, and as centralization efforts continue to pop up around the country, I wanted to share a few lessons.
Three primary functions
First, for those who don’t know about Thunderdome, it was a New York City-based operation that employed about 50 journalists tasked with helping the digital transition of DFM’s 75 dailies and hundreds of weekly print publications.
Thunderdome had three primary functions:
- To serve as a centralized national news desk for our properties so that we didn’t have multiple papers producing the same story about the royal baby or the Kentucky Derby or the Academy Awards. The hope was that we would then be able to devote more resources to local news in our markets
- To produce news products that DFM could launch across all its properties and then sell against
- To collectively provide skills to our newsrooms that we could not afford in every newsroom, specifically data, video, curation and graphics services
We had varying levels of success with these three functions. On the first, we were successful in producing a lot of top-notch digital work for DFM properties, such as the Firearms in the Family and JFK 50th anniversary packages. Thunderdome was also able to assist local publications on major stories such as the Sandy Hook school shooting and the Boston Marathon bombing by providing resources that ranged from reporting to editing to video to curation.
Where we didn't fare as well was in allowing properties to devote more resources to local. The industrywide financial headwinds ended up being stronger than anticipated, so local newsrooms continued to get smaller during Thunderdome's life.
The second Thunderdome function — the creation of new, monetizable content — was the least successful. This leads to one of the major takeaways for me: Never underestimate the technical challenges of centralization. If you are using multiple CMSes and programming languages and you're planning on bringing that all together, then load up on Red Bull and some Kleenex. It's a long, difficult and frustrating process. How long and how arduous depends on many internal factors, but suffice it to say it'll be harder than you think.
It was the third function where Thunderdome had its greatest success. Being able to produce data projects, video projects, infographics, curation and other specialized services for DFM papers was a home run. We had papers lined up like planes at LaGuardia to get these services. We produced crime maps for the Denver Post and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. We produced data-driven sports packages like the Bracket Advisor. We provided relevant local data to our papers as part of our partnerships with ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity. We did cool video projects like KitchenPop, and a fun political tool called The Waffler.
Basically, we couldn't do enough to satisfy the demand, so I'd argue that any centralization plan needs to include something that improves your journalism. A cost-cutting-only centralization plan won't improve your sites or your relationship with readers, both of which are key to future relevance.
Other lessons learned
It’s all about team. The Thunderdome team was an amazing one, thanks to Robyn Tomlin, who ran the project and made almost all of the hires. The significant majority of the Thunderdiaspora have already landed, though they've had to settle for second-rate places like the Guardian, the New York Times, Yahoo, NBC News, the Los Angeles Times, the Marshall Project, the Pew Research Center and others. Watching the Thunderdome team work so collaboratively was, to me, an example of how newsrooms have to operate to survive in the future. We need fewer egos, fewer divas, more collaboration and more stepping into the breach to help colleagues. All in all, the Thunderdome newsroom was the lowest maintenance newsroom I have ever managed.
But that was just one newsroom. There were lots of other newsrooms inside DFM. Many were supportive and embraced Thunderdome. Some did not. And, in the end, that left Thunderdome in a bind, since it was dependent on DFM newsrooms to use and promote their work. That often led to frustration when a particularly strong piece wasn't used by many of our papers.