JJohn Paton is a hot commodity these days.

Named Editor & Publisher magazine's “Publisher of the Year” in 2009, his “digital-first” speech at a major global industry conference late last year garnered significant attention when he was CEO of U.S.-based Spanish-language publisher impreMedia. Conference speaking appearances have become more frequent.

In early 2010, John was appointed CEO of the Journal Register Company, known for its thrift, low-tech tendencies, and high margins with its 20 small dailies and 300 non-daily publications and web sites.

Like other U.S. peers, the company took on too much debt during expansion, and the recession wrecked their financial plans. The Journal Register Company emerged from bankruptcy protection having reduced its debt from US$692 million to US$225 million. The company also made the tough transition from a public company to a private company. Today, the Journal Register Company is owned by a few dozen hedge funds seeking a return on their investment.

Enter John Paton.

Having led news companies in Canada, the United States, and Europe, John led impreMedia's transition from a legacy news company to a modern multi-platform news company. He continues to sit on the impreMedia board of directors, and will sit on the board of the new company that will soon own CanWest newspapers in Canada.

Yet with the Journal Register Company, there is an almost no-lose leadership opportunity to achieve what no other newspaper company has done: truly make the cultural transformation to becoming a multi-media company.

While most companies struggle with managing the transition from print to multi-media with the benefit and curse of a healthy balance sheet, John has no such struggle with the Journal Register Company. He inherits a company with significant debt, a legacy reputation, and a print culture preventing the company's transformation.

Changing the culture to “digital-first” at all costs is the key to reviving the Journal Register Company. John believes in nothing short of profound transformation for newspaper companies, including his own — or they won't survive. That appears to be ownership's view, and that's why John was brought in to practically apply a lifetime of lessons in a non-traditional way.

Listening to John one evening recently over dinner, it's clear that “digital-first” has three broad thrusts to it:

  • First, he believes the news ecology must be mobile first, online second, and print the day's final curation. Newspapers must stop using print as its organising principle.

  • Second, he believes the corporate culture — from the newsroom to the board room and beyond — must be rooted in attributes associated with digital companies: transparency, crowdsourcing, customer engagement, social media, willingness to partner, using free web-based tools to publish (the “Ben Franklin Project”), embracing digital tools, and flatter management in exchange for more “feet on the streets” with reporters and sales reps.

  • Third, there must be relentless upward management of digital revenues and relentless downward management of print cost structures.

There are a lot of leadership moves designed for different constituencies — buying high-definition flip video cameras for every reporter to demonstrate digital seriousness, a “digital-first” blog by John detailing the Journal-Register experiments to show transparency, creating an advisory board with the likes of Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen to show this is a newspaper company that “gets it,” and more.

To the outsider, it seems like chaos. Yet what ties the chaos together is leadership. The vast majority of newspaper companies today are led by the same teams that entered the recession, and they struggle mightily to lead a “change” agenda because of their lengthy tenures. As a new CEO and as an outsider, John has a rare opportunity in his first year to change a company's culture at the foundation. Most likely by early 2011, the impetus to change will be replaced with the need to demonstrate growth with the survivors of foundational change.

And if John Paton can't change the foundation, then no amount of best practices or financial wizardry will affect his company's fate.

The Journal Register Company has, unwittingly, become Ground Zero for our industry's cultural transformation. Let's keep an eye on this one.