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 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.