Digital First Media’s Project Thunderdome on chopping block

Project Thunderdome, an innovative experiment in producing news content for 75 daily newspapers across the country, will be slashed by its owner in a cost-cutting move, people close to the venture said Tuesday.

An announcement about the New York-based project’s fate, including its 45 editorial employees, could come on Wednesday.

The colorfully named operation was started by the Journal Register Co. in 2011 to act as a kind of internal wire service for its newspapers, which included the New Haven Register. The company, which filed for bankruptcy-court protection in 2008 and 2012, merged operations with a second newspaper operator, MediaNews Group of Denver, later in 2011.

The merged operations form one of the largest newspaper chains in America, with daily and weekly papers in 19 states. The combined papers are managed by Digital First Media (DFM), a privately held company based in New York.

The project’s journalists produce original articles and aggregate content supplied by partner organizations to DFM’s newspapers, which include the San Jose Mercury News, Denver Post and St. Paul Pioneer Press.

The operation was designed to centralize production and distribution of national and international news, freeing the company’s newspapers to concentrate their resources on covering news in their communities.

A sharp reduction in the project, which has been closely watched within newspaper circles as a potential cost-saving model, would be a setback for DFM, whose chief executive, John Paton, has been a leading proponent of transforming print-centric newsrooms for the digital era.

It would also be another sign of the financial difficulties gripping newspapers generally as they struggle to find ways to reduce overhead amid an eroding advertising base.

A spokesman for DFM could not be reached Tuesday evening.

People familiar with the operation, who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak for the company, said it was unclear how DFM’s newspapers would handle the functions now handled by Thunderdome.

farhip@washpost.com

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post's media reporter.
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