In Another Blow to Local Journalism, Digital First Media to Shutter Thunderdome
Digital First Media is dismantling its Thunderdome centralized newsroom project and will soon announce a series of layoffs that will shutter one of the most ambitious projects in the world of local digital journalism.
DFM is made up of more than 100 newspapers across the United States from local titles to the Denver Post and claims a reach of 67 million people. The company’s CEO, John Paton, is known for his outspoken views on the death of the newspaper industry and the need to pivot toward digital media. Thunderdome represented the company’s big ambitions and willingness to invest in an effort to develop a modern media structure that could sustain local reporting.
The move was confirmed by sources within DFM that asked not to be named. While the move had not been officially announced as of Wednesday morning, DFM editor in chief Jim Brady tweeted out a link to a Nieman Journalism Lab story about the end of Thunderdome as well as an ominous message.
Seriously, if anyone out there is looking for talented digital folks across the skills spectrum, please let me know. firstname.lastname@example.org
— Jim Brady (@jimbradysp) April 2, 2014
While the layoffs will only touch a small fraction of the company’s more than 10,000 employees, cost savings to DFM will help any future efforts to attract buyers for its assets.
Thunderdome’s closure comes just more than two months after AOL essentially abandoned its local news efforts in Patch. AOL sold a majority of Patch to a private equity company. Two weeks later, the company was rocked by layoffs.
DFM is also far from the only newspaper group to announce recent layoffs. Gannett announced a round of cuts in August, with the Tribune Company following suit in November. Headcount at newspaper has been steadily dropping.
“Full-time professional newsroom employment declined another 6.4% in 2012 with more losses expected for 2013,” the Pew Research Center wrote in its 2014 State of the News Media report.
The cuts at DFM come just more than two months after the company announced Project Unbolt, which was designed to change the workflows at the company’s papers to generate digital content that could then be assembled into print editions. In December, DFM merged MediaNews Group and 21st Century Media, two of the newspaper companies it managed.
Thunderdome was created to offer national and international content to its local media outlets to allow for its journalists to pursue local stories. Paton told the Denver Post in 2012 that the platform would minimize the number of journalists writing the same stories, saving resources and givings its people a chance to work on local content.
“Thunderdome is our attempt to increase the quality of the non-local content across all of our sites and across all of our platforms,” Paton told the Denver Post in 2012.
A recent presentation by Paton posted to his blog highlighted the difficult situation for DFM. Despite growing revenue, costs had mounted and profits fallen.
“Why? Because print is dying much faster than anyone anticipated,” Paton noted. “And because the profound changes in digital revenue streams will require huge investments in digital products and people.”
Paton has also noted in the presentation that the company would need to double down on its investment in digital media.
“At our company that means spending up to a further additional $100 million annually in digital within three years,” he wrote. “That’s a $100 milion more than the already $100 million-plus we are already spending.”
DFM did not respond immediately to inquiries on the announcement.