The New Haven Register celebrates its 200th anniversary this year - and closes its printing presses for good. That’s part of its new strategy to focus on digital first, and print last. WNPR’s Neena Satija reports on the changes facing the newspaper.
[Printing press bell rings]
That’s the sound of the Goss Metroliner printing press bell. Pressmen at the New Haven Register are ringing it on their final night of work. Earlier this year the Register announced it would outsource the printing and delivery of its newspapers to the Hartford Courant, laying off more than 100 people in the process. Among them is electromechanical supervisor Tom Powers. He’s worked in other industries before, so he’s not too worried about finding another job.
POWERS: “The other guys, I feel a little bit bad for them, because some of them have done printing all their lives and you know, certainly newspaper printing is a dying industry. And hopefully they’ll all land on their feet.”
To those who work here in the press room, this night is a bittersweet moment at best. For those in management, it’s an important way to show that the Register is embracing the motto of its corporate owner, the Journal Register Company.
“Digital comes first, print comes last.”
That’s Steve Buttry. He works for Digital First Media, which was created last fall and now oversees the digital transition at the Register.
BUTTRY: “In about a tweet length, what is a specific challenge relating to how you work your day?”
Buttry’s leading a workshop on what’s called “Digital First Workflow” in the Register newsroom. He does that for the hundreds of JRC newsrooms across the country. Buttry says the newsroom here has been very receptive of the new strategy, but at this recent workshop, he did get some pushback from reporters. Sports Editor Sean Barker said he was having trouble managing all of his new digital responsibilities.
BARKER: “You got to tweet for Yankees, Mets, Red Sox for all Connecticut papers, New York papers, you have to put it on Tweeter, twit, tweet, whatever. [laughter.]”
Veteran crime reporter Bill Kaempffer had a similar concern.
KAEMPFFER: “At a crime scene, what is the priority? What do you want first? A tweet takes 20 seconds, but do I divert so I can do the video? And have it take 20 minutes to download, and 20 minutes to cut, and 20 minutes to upload, or is my priority the printed work?”
Register reporters have seen extraordinary changes over their time here. Jack Kramer started off as an intern at the paper in 1974 and worked his way up to editor-in-chief in the mid-1990s. At that time, the Journal Register Company’s attitude toward the internet was very different than it is now.
KRAMER: “The fear at the time was if you put it online, people would not buy the paper or advertisers wouldn’t advertise. So for the first part of my internet career, I actually spent a lot of time trying to please my bosses by not putting content online.”
That all changed after the Journal Register Company filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and was taken over by new management. Kramer lost his job last August, and now everything is expected to go online before it appears in print. Matt DeRienzo has taken over editorial operations at all of the JRC’s newspapers in Connecticut. Now, the Register’s morning news meeting is a live online chat that readers can participate in.
DeRienzo also launched what he calls a “Digital Ninja School,” where reporters learn digital strategies like blogging, video, and social media. The training sessions aren’t mandatory, but if reporters show up and prove they’re using what they’ve learned, they get paid up to $2000 in bonuses for it.
DERIENZO: “A very new conversation around here that you wouldn’t have heard six months ago or definitely not three years ago is…I published this awesome photo gallery of high school basketball photos, but it only got 800 hits. What did I do wrong? And then adjusting their timing, or their headline, or their social media approach, or their engagement with the audience. And then the second one got 5000 hits, and now we’re going to do it this way.”
The Register plans to sell its headquarters on the side of I-95 and move to downtown New Haven, where it will open up a “newsroom café.” Anyone can walk in and speak to editors and reporters, as well as attend newsroom meetings.
Management insists that all of this has been great for the company. They say they’re making up almost all of their lost print advertising in digital revenue, whether that comes from online or mobile advertising, video, or a number of other digital products. But the reporters still worry about what “Digital First, Print Last” will do to the quality of their journalism. Bill Kaempffer finds the new tools sometimes get in the way of his reporting.
KAEMPFFER: “The toolbox still for me is a notebook and pen, and maybe that’s one of the changes that I have to adjust to.”
And even if the Digital First strategy gives the Register another 200 years, what those years will look like is anybody’s guess. Ken Doctor is author of the book “Newsonomics.”
DOCTOR: “I don’t have any doubt that there will be the nameplate of the New Haven Register, and it’ll be mainly a digital company. It’ll be there. Who owns it, no one has any idea. And how big is it? Is the biggest question I have.”
Right now the Register has about 20 reporters. When former editor Jack Kramer was there in the 1980s, he remembers more than twice that number. He thinks the Digital First strategy is the right way to go, and the only choice the paper really has. But he’s not optimistic the Register will ever be what it once was.
KRAMER: “I don’t know where you make money on the internet the way you used to make in newspapers. Don’t know if you can do that, but hasn’t happened yet. Hasn’t happened yet. But maybe somebody’ll figure it out. Someone smarter than me, anyway.”
And that solution probably won’t involve printing presses at all.
For WNPR, I’m Neena Satija.
NOTE: This text is edited for correction from the audio version, which states that Jack Kramer started as an intern at the New Haven Register in 1976 and lost his job last December. In fact, he started in 1974 and lost his job last August.