Ben Franklin Project A Success

By Jon Cooper, Vice President of Content for Journal Register Company


The Ben Franklin Project launched with a 30 day deadline but we decided to file early.

In 29 days the staffers at The News-Herald in Lake County, Ohio and at Montgomery Media’s Perkasie News-Herald reinvented almost every process it takes to produce a website and newspaper.

On April 21 Journal Register Company CEO John Paton blogged that:

In the next 30 days, the News-Herald, one of our dailies in Ohio, and Montgomery Media, one of our weekly groups in Pennsylvania, will, from assigning to editing – create, publish and distribute news content on the web and print, using only free tools available on the Internet … This project will show not just how talented our staff is but also how connected we are to our communities. By using digital tools, we are going to the community to find out what they want covered and, by involving them in that coverage, we can dive more deeply into important subjects than we have been able to do before.

And what started with that direction quickly became a re-imagining of the way we work. Reporters and editors recommitted themselves to focusing on the audience as story assignments and projects were developed with involvement from readers. Designers set aside the industry standard tools — Photoshop, Quark and others — for unfamiliar online solutions including Scribus. Managers and accounting staffers surrendered their trusted Excel spreadsheets and dove into the Google Docs.

The Ben Franklin Project — named so in honor of the inventor-innovator-printer-publisher-newsman-statesman — stressed innovation. But that innovation isn’t solely tied to disrupting the model of proprietary publishing software by using free, open-source and/or easily accessible solutions. The Ben Franklin Project provided a laboratory for reporters, editors, designers, publishers and others. The ability to use free tools as opposed to those that have rooted themselves as the industry standard in the legacy model provided a no-cost, no-failure option. Didn’t like the free photo program we found? Try another one. The Ben Franklin Project allowed staffers to find the tools that fits the work rather than fitting the work to the tools.

Telling the Stories

A cornerstone of the Ben Franklin Project is the inclusion of everyone in the process. While project observers helped fill the toolshed, our audiences helped fill the websites and printed pages.

The Ben Franklin Project opens the process and allows everyone to participate at whatever level they are comfortable. Adhering to Journal Register’s digital first mission, the Ben Franklin Project will empower the audience – through use of free web-based tools (the list of which is still being finalized) – to determine on what stories our reporting and editing staff should be focusing their efforts. The audience – the news consumer – will no longer simply be the end user. By transforming the process the traditional “end user” will be put at the beginning of the process when she helps shape the newsgathering and participates in the newsgathering.

And the audience wasted no time in participating. The Perkasie News-Herald invited readers to a town hall meeting — a mix of old-school outreach and the new-school crowdsourcing approach. The Q-and-A session of the meeting served as a news meeting where residents requested stories on the local electric rates and the community’s pay-as-you-throw trash collection system. Reporters and editors still did the work but they knew from the time story assignments were conceived that these stories matter to the audience.

The News-Herald in Lake County asked readers to help extend the newsroom’s reach by covering more turf than the reporting team could do alone. Editors, using Facebook, asked followers to help the staff build a list of the most dangerous intersections in the coverage area. By asking the audience to collaborate the staff was able to collect dozens of suggestions within the first few hours of the Facebook post. Reporters cross-referenced the submissions with data obtained from police. The same worked for a series of stories on blighted properties in the area. Readers were asked to report blighted properties and the reporters then investigated.

The crowdsourcing not only ensures the stories are relevant to the readership but also provides greater depth and breadth to the report as the community — collaborating with reporters and editors — can help extend the reach of the newsroom.

16 Comments

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16 responses to “Ben Franklin Project A Success

  1. Great work everybody! It’s an outstanding, historic accomplishment. Thanks and congratulations to everyone involved for leading the way. And special thanks to John Paton for the vision and the challenge.

  2. Fascinating project, from open-source software to crowdsourcing and user-generated ideas. This is where journalism needs to go. One hopes that adequate monetization will follow (or remain) so that these journos can earn a decent wage and keep up the great work.

  3. I have always thought that a getting out a daily paper was a minor miracle, but last night was an outstanding effort by all of us. I am proud to be part of such a noble profession!

  4. Brian McCloskey

    I agree with Lee Ann, it is a minor miracle that in our industry we do create a new product each and every day. I am very proud to be part of The News-Herald team! It was with great anticipation we waited for the press to print our edition and get into our hands. I am sure our readers felt the same way.

  5. Tricia Ambrose

    How exciting it was to push ourselves out of our comfort zone on all fronts. Our readers truly were at the heart of our stories helping us from the start, rather than being limited to commenting on a finished product. And I have to add for those who don’t know her – Lee Moran ROCKS!

  6. Jess Novak

    The paper looked great today!
    Great job you guys.

  7. After 29 days of finding new ways to publish a paper, build ads and engage the community in the Ben Franklin project, The News-Herald was right back at it publishing another award winning daily copy again today. We now have a better understanding and more tools at our disposal. A brand new product everyday!

  8. Pingback: Ben Franklin Project hits the mark; employees justifiably proud « Journalism, Because It Matters

  9. Here’s an interesting comment that someone left on our story about launching the Ben Franklin Project in Torrington, CT.

    Any thoughts?

    KAH wrote on May 24, 2010 6:46 PM:
    ” As someone who reads many colonial and revolutionary era newspapers, I think it’s fair to point out that they were composed without journalists at all. There were no investigative reporters. If you imitate that, it is a big mistake. These were political papers full of propaganda, jokes, letters and public opinion, but rarely did they carry news unless they took it from foreign papers or repeated another story (again, not gathered by objective reporting) from another colonial newspaper. It is good to be responsive to the community, but there is too much opinion available already, and not enough hard news. Reinforcing what people believe to be true is not the job of the modern newspaper. Of course, in the 18th century, the papers helped to cause a revolution and that may not be a bad thing. “

  10. Matt, I’d tell that commenter that it doesn’t seem like the stories that asked for citizen input were about hot-button political issues. How much political slant can one apply to something like the dangerous intersections story? Furthermore, even if a reader/citizen were to suggest a story with biased motives, the reporters and editors would still have to decide whether the story had merit and tell both sides.

    All in all, great job on this! It’s an incredible achievement and I’ll be interested to see what this new newsroom attitude produces in the future.

  11. Tom R

    Having been in the media and ‘new media’ biz for a while myself, I must say:

    I truly don’t get it.

    Were you that stuck in an old industrial-era model that this seemed like that big a deal?

    I ask this question very seriously….

  12. Tom,

    Removing the restraints of proprietary software and systems and changing the culture of the newsgathering teams is a big deal. Journal Register Company had long been a print-focused organization.

    Most news organizations are still beholden to specific deadlines (press starts for newspapers and broadcast times for tv). They are also beholden to specific systems that handle specialized functions including pagination, classified ad order entry, etc.

    The Ben Franklin Project is a first step in challenging this status quo.

    Happy to discuss the project, the goals and the process with you if you’d like.

    Best,
    Jonathan Cooper
    VP, Content
    Journal Register Company

  13. Pingback: Celebrating Free-dom: The Journal Register Company’s Ben Franklin Project « Steve Earley

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