Lessons Learned From Project Thunderdome

“Do we think local news organizations — in the disaggregated Web world we live in and the even more atomic mobile world we're speeding into — actually need much national news anymore?” asks Jim Brady, who was head of Project Thunderdome until the project was dismantled about three months ago. It’s just one of many observations Brady makes as he shares lessons learned from 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. 

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Three primary functions

Jim Brady

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. 

Brand Connections

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.


Comments (2) -

Gary Kebbel posted over 2 years ago
Jim Brady is a smart editor with a lot of digital experience. One of the many reasons he's such a good editor is his ability to honestly, and brutally if necessary, critique his own work, learn from it, then implement changes based on what he's learned. In this article he asks a bold question that needs an answer: How much national and international news do local digital newspapers need when readers can get that news in a thousand other places? We might not like the answer, but the question is a crucial recognition that the audience has changed in the digital world. It has the power to get commodity information on its own. What it can't get on its own is unique local reporting.
Kevin Benz posted over 2 years ago
As a young journalist I remember asking that very question about National and International news. The answer was deceptively simple — "all news is local, or it's not news." Local news must be relevant to its local audience or it will not be consumed. While running newsrooms for broadcast, cable and digital platforms, that simple principle has played out many times. Jim Brady is right when he says centralization should be about producing quality content and increasing scale for revenue gain rather than about efficiency. National news is most relevant to our audience when it is written from a local perspective. News about war is more meaningful when local soldiers are mentioned, 9/11, as deep a national story as you will ever find, became personal when we learned news of the effects on our own flights, security and those local sons and daughters involved. Of course the basic facts of national and international news events don't change, but the narrative relevance is related to local perspective and only a local can do that. So how can centralization help? Jim answers that question when he looks at his successes. Few local newsrooms can afford the talent to create outstanding sales packages and special content projects on a national scale. Thunderdome is an important model to learn from. Thanks to Jim and his staff for living on the bleeding edge for so many.


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