Yesterday's announcement by Digital First Media's John Paton, that DFM would be shuttering it's Project Thunderdome has provoked quite a bit of chatter. Much of that came in the way of schadenfreude, or "patonfreude", as Lucia Moses called it.
And, some of that is to be expected. John Paton has a big personality and he was not shy about touting the bold steps that DFM was taking in an effort to redefine their business. But most of the response was supportive, recognizing that bringing change is difficult, and we should celebrate the efforts, regardless of the results.
Ultimately, there were many huge challenges that DFM and Project Thunderdome faced.
As Mathew Ingram notes, a private equity-backed structure, does not lend itself well to long-term experimentation with new models.
But digging more deeply, there were many structural issues.
The basic idea behind Thunderdome was to create a centralized newsdesk to handle all big, national stories, with local properties handling local news. In many ways, that made sense, and DFM assembled an all-star team of digital news professionals, led by Jim Brady and Robyn Tomlin to lead it.
But that model may have been one of the big challenges for DFM.
While shared resources make sense, transformation of a business from print to digital can't be done by a centralized, shared unit. Innovation is not something that can be created externally and dropped into an organization, as though by an Amazon drone.
As Ken Doctor notes: "Thunderdome wasn’t universally received well within the company. Talk to the locals and you heard grumbles. Traffic to the new Thunderdome sections didn’t impress them. They didn’t like national imposition on local news judgment."
Successful transformation has to come from a blend of new and old. Embedding new capabilities, while empowering existing editorial resources, is probably the best path to success. Of course, there is always resistance to change, and we've seen many cases where the legacy organization rejects the implantation of an innovation team. But it seems that positioning Thunderdome as the future, and the local papers as "the past" left DFM with no bridge to navigate the present.