Stop the presses: Daily Freeman moves printing to Troy

Yesterday was a day for the history books: the last day that the Daily Freeman, published since 1871, rolled off its Kingston presses:

As of today, the paper has shut down its local press and moved its printing to Troy, New York, a change that eliminated 58 jobs and that the company claims will save them $500,000.

It's a big move for the paper – and it's earned them some brickbats from locals. Former Kingston alderman Richard Cahill fumes:

There was a time when the Freeman was Kingston's newspaper. That time is past. The Freeman has abandoned the City of Kingston and sent our jobs to Troy, New York. Almost 60 people are being put out of work RIGHT BEFORE CHRISTMAS!! I wonder if they got a Christmas card with their layoff/firing notice.

But as much as Cahill (and many like-minded souls, including most journalists) would like to hold on to the golden era of newsprint, the party is long since over. There's a full-fledged crisis afoot in the news business, and the Freeman hasn't been spared by it. Last year, the Journal Register Company, which owns the Freeman, declared bankruptcy.

What's surprising about the Freeman's move to shut down the press – and, indeed, even the company's bankruptcy – is that it has inspired a glimmer of hope inside the newsroom. It's a step toward a new kind of newsroom, one where the web comes first, and where the paper is actively trying to transition to a digital future instead of squeezing the dying print business model for ever-decreasing amounts of juice. Will the Freeman ultimately succeed in transitioning to a more web-based newsroom and business model? That's anyone's guess -- but in a time of massive uncertainty for newspapers large and small, any step towards innovation is worth trying. 

We spoke to managing editor Tony Adamis (who's been a good sport about our pesky questions before) about where the Freeman is headed in these bewildering times.

Watershed Post: This isn't just a cost-cutting measure, is it? From what the Freeman's owner, the Journal Register Company, is doing across the chain, it seems to be part of a more company-wide philosophy about how to run a newspaper.

Tony Adamis: It very much is a company-wide philosophy. And it's not just about how to run a newspaper. It's about how to make the transition from being a newspaper – which is a good thing to be -- to being a multimedia journalism company. So the trick is to not let your historical legacy costs keep you from making that transition to a, shall we say, more frictionless journalistic existence.

WP: We run an online-only news site – clearly we're sold on the idea of a “frictionless journalistic existence.”

TA: I'm sure you are. We recognize that our competitors, people like yourself, have a different cost structure. And while newspapers are still making money, the trend lines are not good. Anyone with half a brain can see the handwriting on the wall: that we have to make a move, for our own survival, and for our community's well-being, into different platforms, which have different sets of costs and expectations.

The fact of the matter is we still have a very loyal readership, though it's not as big as it was at its peak. And those customers are very important to us. Most of the people in this building are ink-and-paper people. We love newspapers. But we're also very excited about the possibilities that the digital world opens up to journalism as well. The thing that the president of our company, John Paton, says over and over again is: We're in the business of journalism. He's very intent on focusing on what properties have traditionally done best, and what they're supposed to do best.

WP: Reporting news, rather than trucking things around?

TA: Rather than trucking things around, inserting papers into things, that sort of thing. The focus is to change the cost structure of the company, with the idea of beefing up our ability to deliver content. So that's what we're trying to do, and that's actually pretty exciting.

I look at what we've done over the last seven or eight months. Maybe to some outsiders it doesn't look like much. But on the web, we're doing more and more. Increasingly we're thinking about the web before we think about print, or thinking about them simultaneously. We're doing things on the web we could never do on paper. These are new opportunities, and they demand new skills.

WP: I confess, I don't envy you having to work in two platforms at the same time.

TA: It certainly isn't easy, but change isn't easy for human beings in general. What we're trying to do is take an existing journalism enterprise and a brand, and transition it into this new age. It is difficult. The cliché that is used within the company is that we're changing the tires while the car is moving.

Compared to where we were a year ago – when the company that owns us was in bankruptcy, and had no real vision for where we were going – we are in an infinitely better position. There's some real optimism about where we are going. Not everybody in the building is on board. But I think everybody is making a credible effort to make this transition.

WP: What's changed about the company's management since the Journal Register Company declared bankruptcy last year?

TA: Well, it seems to me that the new ownership and the new management have an idea of the future. It seemed like the previous management was just going to ride the old model down by continually trying to cut costs, in ways that didn't see the cost-cutting as a means to moving to a new future. There's really been a sea change in what we get from above us, a lot of people thinking very hard about the future and trying very hard to help us make that transition.

Having said that, we all feel for the people who lost their jobs. There's just no two ways around that.

WP: We're sold on the web as a format for journalism, obviously, or we wouldn't be doing what we're doing. But there are still a lot of people out there who are dependent on print news. How is this move going to affect your ability to get breaking news into the paper, given the fact that you have to go to press earlier? And what do you expect the tradeoffs to be?

TA: The answer to that is self-evident. If you've got an earlier deadline, some things won't make it in. We think the impact is most obvious in late sports scores. Less so in news, because not a lot of things that can't be predicted happen after deadline in local news. Some of the things you end up writing about – for instance, the Ulster County legislature adopting the budget for 2011 last night. Did anyone doubt that was going to happen?

WP: You can get yourself in trouble that way.

TA: [Laughs.] Dewey Wins!

The content will be different. It may be a day later in some instances. But I'm not sure our readership will be underserved by that.

WP: Probably those who really care about getting things right away will go online anyway.

TA: For some people, immediacy is everything in the digital world. They want to know about things the second they happen. For the people who still want the paper in front of them, and who want the crossword puzzles and comic strips, which we're not doing online, I think our print readers are still getting most of what they had.

WP: Tell me more about the changes we can expect to see on the Freeman's website.

TA: You know, I'm not exactly sure what the future holds for us. I do know it's not just a question of the website, it's about getting on a mobile platform. Getting people to your content isn't really about getting them to the homepage these days. It's people following links in social media, tweets and that sort of thing, to get to your site. We currently don't have a mobile app, and there's some thought about how we should.

WP: While you're expanding your web efforts, your competitor to the south, the Times Herald-Record, has made the opposite move. Their parent company, News Corp, is putting up paywalls across all of its newspapers. They don't want web traffic, they want paying subscribers. So you've got two very different business models competing in overlapping territory. Any thoughts on that?

TA: [Laughs.] I take it that after this conversation you're going to call Rupert and ask him about it?

WP: Oh yeah. He's on my speed dial.

TA: It's anybody's guess where this is all headed. The industry is full of people who are very skeptical of the ability to get people to pay for content, except for in well-defined niche markets. And I'm not sure the local daily newspaper fits that. But good luck to them. We'll be watching very closely. I don't think that's the direction the Journal Register Company is headed in, though. They're looking at the Google model of making revenue sideways, rather than the paywall model.

WP: Obviously the news business needs to make serious changes if it's going to survive. But the decision to lay off sixty people just before Christmas and move the printing out of town has generated a lot of bad feeling in the area for the Freeman and its parent company. What have you got to say about that?

TA: Is there ever really a good time to lose your job? When I took this job as managing editor, two years ago, when my predecessor retired -- about a week after I moved into his office, I was told I would have to lay off two people from my department. That was hard. It was hard for them, it was hard for me. I can't believe there's ever a good time for it.

I'm sorry for the way it's received, both by the people who bear the brunt of it and for the community, if they feel that way. The thing that the company knows is that there's no time to waste, because the world is changing so quickly.

Thanks a lot. I'm going to go home and cry now.

WP: I know, I saved the downer for last.

TA: One of the other interesting things that's happened at the Journal Register Company is that the guy at the top believes in transparency.

WP: Hence, your being free to speak to me?

TA: Yes. At one time the business side very jealously controlled all output about the business. And now they walk that walk of transparency.