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.

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Montgomery Media production deadline

noon

In keeping with Journal Register’s digital first initiative, Montgomery Media’s Perkasie News-Herald has already posted the majority of its stories on their WordPress site. Staff members are editing stories and gearing up to lay out the 28-page print edition using Scribus. We’ll continue to post progress reports throughout the day.

2 p.m.

Staff are adding timelines to the project site using Timetoast, a free tool that allows users to create timelines and share them on the Web. Dipity was an option that was considered at the onset of the project. It serves the same purpose but looks a bit messy. More pleasing to the eye is Timetoast, which from a journalism standpoint is a great, free online tool to package bigger issue stories that began years, even decades ago. Trash is an ongoing issue in The Perkasie News-Herald’s coverage area. These easy-to-create Flash timelines cover 10 years of stories in way that’s more appealing to the eye. Scroll over the dots to see dates or blurbs that when clicked on link to full stories. You can also scroll over the timeline to zone in on specific time frames.

3:30 p.m.

Let’s talk a bit about Embedr, another free tool the team at Montgomery found through a simple Google search. Embedr allows anyone to create custom playlists of videos. Journalists at Montgomery are adding multiple videos to one player rather than embedding three separate videos under a story. In addition to videos, digital journalists looking to create sleek multimedia story packages may also have a timeline and a couple of local documents to supplement a story. Embedr is just one of the free tools available that makes it easier to dress up a story online.

4:30 p.m.

With many specialty groups in the community, The Perkasie News-Herald wanted to compile the different events of those many calendars into one comprehensive community calendar. Using Google’s free online calendar, this is entirely possible. Executing this idea also gives the community another opportunity to provide its newspaper with information that’s not only relevant, as it’s happening in their town, but also wide in scope, ranging from entertainment, to business, to political events. And it can all be done in just a few clicks and maintained in one space. For the most part, the Montgomery team populated the Perkasie News-Herald Around Town Calendar themselves for this project, but with more time and with Google Calendar in their tool belts, there are great possibilities for more online interaction within communities.

5 p.m.

When the Montgomery team was under deadline to compile a press release announcing the April 27 town hall meeting that would introduce this new community-building journalism project to residents, Google Wave really came in handy. This new Web application enables real-time communication and collaboration. About four Montgomery staffers participated, and line-by-line they worked on the press release together. While Google Wave allows for this simultaneous editing process by multiple users in multiple locations, others may prefer to use Google Docs to share their work. One staffer described Google Docs as a more structured editing environment, where you can work on a document and then pass it on to the next editor.

5:30 p.m.

For a project aimed at connecting the community to its news source by inviting them to join in the news-gathering process, Ustream (the leading live interactive broadcast platform) served as a key tool. Ustream enables anyone who’s hooked up to the Internet and has a camera to engage their audience. It fulfills our need (in this industry and as a society) for immediacy and also enables users to broadcast to an audience of unlimited size. The Montgomery team used Ustream to share a live broadcast of the town hall meeting with a larger audience. At the meeting residents voiced concerns about community issues and offered ideas for improving the newspaper’s online and print editions, and this content was delivered live, and at no cost.

6:30 p.m.

Keeping in mind that audience feedback was a major component of this project, Montgomery staffers turned to SurveyMonkey, a free online survey software and questionnaire tool, to ask readers questions about shopping local and about Perkasie’s “pay as you throw” trash system, for two different sets of stories. Perkasie News-Herald staff found residents remain very much engaged in these two issues, so continuous coverage is planned. Pollsb (short  for Polls Boutique) is another resource the team used to survey readers, in this instance through Flash polls. With Pollsb, you can create your own free polls using text, pictures, video and audio. Polls can be private and only viewed where they’re embedded, or shared with the entire social network of Pollsb users. The obvious free Internet tools, Facebook and Twitter, served as the platforms to launch the project‘s other (and equally important) goal: including the audience in the process. The team posted general inquiries, asking fans and followers the issues they wanted  to be addressed. And their responses served as the basis for which stories were written, and which videos and photos were shot.

7 p.m.

Picasa is a free software download from Google that helps users organize, edit and share photos. Team Montgomery used this software to create slideshows for the Ben Head community photo project, which invited readers to snap photos with Franklin’s mug in familiar local places and submit their shots. Picasa was also the photo server for the Pennridge Area Community Tour, a place for community members to submit their videos and photos of favorite spots in the area. Submissions appear on a Google map, pinpointed throughout different locations. Another free photo tool discovered was Resizr, a simple and free online image resizer. Just visit the site and click on “resize and convert images.”

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Piling up: A look at the Perkasie trash system

The team at Montgomery Media’s News-Herald have started reporting their story about the local trash system.

Residents pay $3.25 for each trash bag as a way to fund the program.

According to the News-Herald’s report:

… Perkasie Borough Assistant Manager Andrea Coaxum, the program is not intended to punish anyone, but to provide a cost incentive for recycling.

Borough bags are priced to cover all expenses associated with trash removal, including employee salaries, transportation, vehicles, landfill fees, leaf and bundled branch collection, and the recycling center.

Watch the video below and click here for more on this story.

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Reconnecting and finding new resources

From Tricia Ambrose, executive editor of The News-Herald (Ohio)

A few weeks ago we wrote a story about a local cartoonist who had written a comic book about our local minor league team to be given away at a game. (Full disclosure he worked as an artist here 10 or 12 years ago.) We thought he’d be a good fit for this project. Our editorial page editor found the guy on Facebook and sent him a message asking him if he’d be willing to produce an editorial cartoon for the BFP edition. The two corresponded via Facebook and the artist agreed to participate.

We are also seeking cartoon submissions through schools as well.

The unveil of the community-supplied edit cartoon will be next week.

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Community and Collaboration: Getting it done for free

This week the staff of Montgomery Media’s Perkasie News-Herald launched a WordPress site at http://pa.jrcbenfranklin.com/.

While some of the functionality still links back to Montgomery Media’s original site (including classifieds, privacy policy, etc.) the site provides the basic functionality. (Full disclosure: We are paying $7 per month for the domain jrcbenfranklin.com and for hosting services.)

The staff has also been using free tools for the planning and reporting process.

Google Wave allows members of the team, who work in separate offices, to collaborate on story planning and track progress on everything ranging from crowdsourcing to training.

And while that was going on the staff at the News-Herald in Lake County, Ohio were able to put together a front page using Scribus — a free desktop publishing program.

Take a look at the photo and pick which front was done with Scribus.

While free tools have been part of the focus on The Ben Franklin Project, it’s also about including the audience in the process.

To that end, the News-Herald in Ohio has asked readers and users to help map the most dangerous intersections in Lake County. Using Facebook the staff posed the question to the Facebook nation and quickly received more than a dozen comments from concerned drivers. The News-Herald reporting team will now research those intersections to determine — using information from area police departments — if those are the most dangerous intersections in the county.

The News-Herald, Ohio staff is also working on a story focusing on blight in the community. Residents have been asked to log on to the News-Herald’s website and utilizing SeeClickFix — a community non-emergency reporting portal with which Journal Register Company has a partnership — report blighted buildings and properties in the area. The collective reach of the community can quickly find and report these properties and The News-Herald’s reporting staff will then find out how these properties fell into disrepair and report on what is being done to clean up these areas.

Back in Pennsylvania the Montgomery Media team has — among other projects — asked the community to help create a community tour of the Pennridge area.  Utilizing a Google map, the staff started to plot photos and videos submitted by the community who was asked to simply submit “anything that makes you think, ‘This is why I call this place ‘home’.”

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Town Hall meeting recap

About 25 people came out to the Sellersville Theater Tuesday evening for our Town Hall meeting.

Some great feedback and great story ideas ranging from the current trash collection and recycling programs to stories on water quality and local government.

It was also just a great opportunity for members of the community to voice concerns — and ideas — about how to improve our website and newspaper.

Thank you to all those who attended and who watched online.

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Watch the town hall meeting live @ 6 p.m.

FORT WASHINGTON – Residents of the Pennridge area are invited to attend a town hall meeting at the Sellersville Theater 1894, 24 W. Temple Ave., Sellersville, Tuesday, April 27 from 6 to 7 p.m. Staff members of the Perkasie News-Herald will be on-hand to announce a new community-building journalism project aimed at connecting the community to its news source by asking residents and readers to become part of the news-gathering process.

Watch here

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