I saw this in a Toronto Star article yesterday: John Paton is apparently one of those advising the new owners of chain.

Paton is the recently named head of the Journal-Register newspaper group, and when I saw him speak at last month’s International Symposium on Online Journalism in Austin, Texas, he drew a big round of applause, from an admittedly news- and tech-geeky audience.

The nut graf was something like this. J-R is aggressively adopting a strategy of digital first for its newsrooms. To (horribly) paraphrase, the digital stuff is “easy stuff” and if you can’t do the easy stuff well, you can’t do the harder stuff — print — effectively.

(There was a lot more to his presentation, including this nugget: as well as issuing Flip video cameras to the newsroom, J-R issued them to ad sales staff to shoot pre-roll and other ads. The cameras have paid for themselves.)

Paul Godfrey, the man who will head the new chain, is apparently already on-board. He’s quoted in a Victoria Times-Colonist article as saying:

“We’re going to have to do business a little bit differently. Newspapers are in a transition to the digital world . . . and the chain will be digital-first newspapers.”

The Canwest newspapers I’m most familiar with, the Vancouver Sun and the Province, have already moved toward online first, although online augmentation of print best describes their approach.

It will be interesting to watch what happens with the Canwest papers and any digital-first strategy, given a couple of hurdles that newspapers everywhere, it seems, are struggling with.

One is putting digital first in a process designed to efficiently deal with a couple of deadlines a day and the production of a single, fixed product. That’s an issue of mind-set and of internal processes and organization. I recall Paton saying that the day’s print issue would become the final product of the day’s online reporting. That’s a big switch.

Another — and this is particularly relevant to Canwest — is division of labour. Paton spoke of a newsroom where three people are doing 10 things, not 10 people each doing one of the 10. That may reflect a couple of realities, which include the financial hit newspapers are continuing to take and the efficiencies that multimedia reporting can create. Please note the use of the word “can.” Simply asking one person to do more than one job is not in any way efficient.

Division of labour is a huge issue with Canadian newspapers, which are by and large unionized, with rules and regs that define who does what, and who can do what, again premised on a process that is aimed squarely at a single product at the end of the day.

It’s those challenges — the reinvention of process and target, and who does what — that, I suspect, will be the big ones as Canwest moves to Godfrey’s “digital-first newspapers.”

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