June 18, 2014 Last Updated 7:24 am

Digital First Media’s digital strategy goes from bad to worse as papers switch vendors

MediaNews Group switches from Spreed to Rumble, but continues strategy of news feed apps that offer a poor reader experience, and little editorial supervision

The terribly misnamed newspaper chain, Digital First Media, has been updating many of their mobile apps – both smartphone and tablet – from one outside vendor to another. The old apps were built by Spreed and were look-a-like news feed apps; the new ones come from Rumble and are likewise news feed apps, though marginally more attractive.

CCT-iPad-RumbleThe apps from Spreed were particularly egregious: boxy news apps that slapped the name of the newspaper at the top of the front page – placed there whether there was space that would accommodate the flag or not. Because they were news feed apps, they reflected the content on the newspaper’s websites, not the print edition, and so were really just an app that reformatted the web content for tablet reading. But unlike a website, where the editors can decide what is the lead story, these news apps tended to place the latest story at the top, whether or not it really should be the lead story.

My problem with Digital First Media, and its components – the Journal Register Company and MediaNews Group – has always been that the company has been seen by many journalists and media observers as a forward thinking digital media company, while I see it has a backward, bankrupt company, controlled by private equity companies, and run by executives who would rather outsource their mobile and tablet apps to outside companies rather than actually get serious about digital media. Digital First is a great slogan to have when your real goal is to try and convince an outside investor (and journalists) that your company is worth investing in (or buying outright) but is completely meaningless when you lag behind other companies in, you know, digital.

Now MediaNews Group, the portion of the company that derives from the company established by Dean Singleton, has moved from the vendor Spreed to Rumble. Until now Rumble has had few big city newspaper clients, attracting small newspaper with free apps in order to build its own ad network.

The new apps are somewhat more attractive than the old ones, but built on the same concept: news feeds drive the apps, placing stories into the news sections based on what is the latest posted rather than by the decisions of editors.

The lead story right now in the Contra Costa Times app is of a man’s trial going to jury. The same story does not appear on either the front page of the print edition, or as the lead of the website. Instead it is simply one of the “In Other News” stories seen on the website.

CCT-iPad-articleBecause of the automatic nature of these apps, an editor can not prevent a minor story, with poor graphics from ending up as the lead story. Here, the story features a pixelated photo on the front page, but is even worse when the reader taps the headline and goes to the article. Again, the layouts are automated and the result here is a silly looking layout that places a picture that is probably only a few pixels wide into a giant graphics hole.

Because these types of mobile apps are only someone’s idea of a better website, newspaper who employ them often also have a second app for their newspaper that is a replica edition of the print newspaper. Digital First Media does this, as well. Having outsourced its news reader app, it then outsources its replica apps – in this case to Technavia. Reader reviews of the apps are predictably negative.

The new (and old) app for the Contra Costa Times is personally offensive to me as I used to work at the company that founded the newspaper, Lesher Communications. I was recruited to Northern California from Santa Monica to be classified ad manager at one of the community newspapers that was part of the chain build by Dean Lesher. Lesher was by then an old man, but very much a legend in the California newspaper business. Not terribly progressive, he nonetheless saw the growth potential of the eastern Bay Area suburbs and started up the Contra Costa Times, surrounding it with The Valley Times and West County Times.


Dean and Margaret Lesher




Lesher’s arch rival was Floyd Sparks who had his own chain of newspapers in the East Bay, over the hill from Contra Costa County and closer to San Francisco. The two chains met in what is called the Tri Valley area – Dublin, Pleasanton and Livermore. Both chains thrived, though they had different strategies. The Sparks newspapers, known as the Alamedia Newspaper Group (ANG), combined all the papers for their classified section, while Lesher was totally committed to local advertising, only combining the recruitment ads inside classifieds.

The result was that the Sparks newspapers had a large, lucrative classified section that drove profits, while the success of the Lesher classified sections depended on the local sales staffs and their management (which is why when The Valley Times went from a six day to a seven day newspaper I was brought in to run its classified advertising). Competing against ANG was hard simply because any sales rep could present to potential customers a large, vibrant classified section, comparing it to the smaller section The Valley Times could present. Worse, ANG were price cutters, offering far more circulation at lower prices. For Sparks, if lower rates kept the local happy, and the ads appearing, the loss of a little profit was something he could deal with.

To beat them, I decided to sell based on demographics. Everyone knew the suburban readers in Contra Costa County were more affluent so the goal was to steal the high-end real estate ads and lure the car dealers with the idea that they would reach buyers less in need of haggling on price, and easier to qualify for loans.

It started to work and was helped immensely by the fact that Sparks had just sold out to Dean Singleton. Singleton saw family-owned newspapers properties as over staffed, bloated units where profits could be maximized through consolidation. For Sparks, who did not need to make more profits next month than he did the month before, and had no debt to retire, there was no reason to compromise the product. For Singleton, who needed to find a way to maximize profits to justify the acquisition, the first moves made usually were to cut the size of both editorial and sales staffs. Suddenly, competing with ANG was no problem.

Floyd Sparks died in 1988 at the age of 87. Dean Lesher died in 1993 at the age of 89. By then I had left the papers to become a publisher at McGraw-Hill. Lesher’s widow sold off the papers in 1995 to Knight Ridder, which then published the San Jose Mercury News. At that time the Mercury News may well have been the most successful newspaper in the country, serving Silicon Valley at the height of the dot com boom. Its classified section was a marvel. It was so filled with recruitment advertising that the auto dealers were forced out of classifieds and ran their ads ROP.

But things started to go down hill after the tech stock bubble burst in 2000-02. Knight Ridder sold off its Bay Area newspapers to McClatchy, which then turned right around and sold off the papers to MediaNews Group, Dean Singleton’s company. The result was, and is, that the newspapers have never recovered. Many of the newspapers were merged and have disappeared, with 11 newspaper titles merged into two in 2011, with the expected loss of 120 positions.

But one should be clear, these moves were not done to save dying newspapers, they were done to save a dying newspaper company. Each of these newspapers had local readership and local ad support. Without the debt accumulated through the acquisitions these papers may have continued publishing. Local advertising may have declined, but it has disappeared now that the local brands and their sales people have disappeared. With a local editor sitting in on a local board meeting, there is no community involvement possible. An editor sitting in a central office can not know what is going on in the dozens and dozens of communities these papers once served. Executives were brought in, and those inside promoted, for their willingness to go along with the destruction of these newspaper, not because any skill at newspaper publishing.  As a result, the Bay Area, which has the nation’s wealthiest and most educated audience, has the worst newspapers in the country.

At last, let it be said, newspaper executives have killed off these papers, not the growth of digital media. If it were the fault of digital, don’t you think it would be to goal of these papers to be leaders and innovators in newspaper app development?

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