John Paton, CEO of Digital First Media, the parent company of MediaNews Group and 21st Century Media, which operates “operate more than 800 digital and online products in 18 states serving more than 61.5 million customers per month,” has become something of an icon for print periodical turnaround stories since his rescue of the Journal Register Co., now part of 21st Century. And he recently disclosed in his personal blog – tellingly titled “Digital First” – some details of “The Subscription Project” at his group, and their results so far.

“The transformational journey from print to digital is a long one. And it is all uphill,” Paton observes. “It’s a journey made all the more difficult when you carry the extra tonnage of newspaper companies whose cost structures were more than a century in the making and now need to be radically rebuilt – by yesterday.”

That said, although “print dollars are becoming digital dimes,” Paton insists, “at DFM the team has excelled at stacking digital dimes. From 2012 (our last full year) vs. 2009, digital advertising has grown more than 89 percent. Our comparators don’t come close.”

That said, Paton isn’t talking about a single broad solution or unqualified success. The group’s various newspapers in fact operated various digital strategies: some with open website access, some with “traditional paywalls,” and some that “experimented with finding other forms of ‘payment’ such as asking users to fill out online Google Consumer Surveys.” The survey-style revenue model, “while initially a success, gradually fell off in its effectiveness and reduced our online traffic growth.” The paywalls “failed to generate any kind of significant revenue” Only  “a working All-Access subscription model” can deliver the impetus that newspapers now need, according to Paton.

A trifle too cut and dried, perhaps? Paton’s piece does in fact read very smoothly and crisply for a personal piece. But his figures do appear convincing enough, and the outcome is intuitively obvious. If advertising is going to be your sole real source of revenue, why would you try to block those eyeballs away with paywalls or long questionnaires? Makes far more sense to lure the punters in to gawk at the billboards.

And Paton admits, “in the past few years, if there is anything I have learned there is no single solution to the print-digital transformation.” So his statements and data points are there, for what they’re worth, for you to learn from.


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