By Jon Cooper, Vice President of Content, Journal Register Company
This weekend Journal Register Company’s 18 daily websites and newspapers were published using free tools and crowdsourced journalism.
Today — July 4, 2010 — marks not only Journal Register Company’s independence from the costly proprietary systems that have long restricted newspapers and news companies alike. Today also marks the start of a revolution. Today marks the beginning of a new path for media companies whose employees are willing to shape their own future.
What began as a quiet conversation back in April has become a wide open opportunity. What seemed impossible less than 90 days ago has become reality and has left us asking “why not?” and “what’s next?”
At its core, The Ben Franklin Project is an opportunity to innovate and that is what Journal Register’s employees have done. The trepidation felt during the first days of this project has been replaced by an overwhelming sense of accomplishment — and one that was achieved through collaboration.
Employees worked together to research new tools and to train on new software. Staff members worked together across departments and also collaborated from site to site.
News editors shared story ideas through a series of collaboration calls as they discussed crowdsourcing techniques and the results of their efforts. Artists and production managers organized web-based training to help familiarize co-workers with new pagination and design programs. And little by little the knowledge spread and the opportunities to share and experiment grew.
But, as newsrooms always do, the staffs met their charge and completed the Ben Franklin Project before July 4.
Does this mean that starting July 5 all newsrooms will publish using Scribus or will tone all photos using Gimp? No, but if an operation — part Journal Register or an outside company — wanted to, they could. The tools we discovered, trained on and used as part of the Ben Franklin Project could allow a news organization to throw away their old methods and start anew.
The redefining, innovation and adaptation of the BFP was most on display in our newsgathering process and with the stories the newsrooms produced.
The Delaware County Times, serving Delaware County, tackled property taxes and asked residents to bring in their bills so the staff could see what people are paying and what the community is getting back for those payments.
In Torrington, Conn., the staff of The Register Citizen asked the community about the state of city’s downtown. The Record in Troy, N.Y. also focused editorial attention on downtown when asking residents and business owners about the impact of newly installed parking meters.
The Saratogian — Saratoga Springs, N.Y. – used social media to help report a story on how local charitable agencies and non-profit were leveraging the power of Facebook to help raise funds.
The Oakland Press utilized a town hall meeting – something that has become a regular occurrence for the Michigan site – to solicit ideas for the Ben Franklin Project. As a result the OP team decided to start a story on textbook bias to see who pens the books used to teach our children.
The Times Herald in Norristown, Penn. utilized the BFP to launch an ongoing series on immigration issues their communities are facing. The edit team continued community impact stories with a report on the power company and rising electric rates, as well as a more light-hearted look at an issue all those in greater Philadelphia care about – the cheesesteak.
The difference between how these stories are usually written and how they were written for today is the process. In many cases the stories reported as part of the BFP began with the audience. The people who are usually last in line were moved to the front of the process. Rather than just being able to read the finished product, the audience – through town hall meetings, social networking sites, direct requests via email and in person and more – was asked to help determine what the editorial staffs should cover.
This took the in-company collaboration to where it needs to be – collaboration between the audience and our organizations. To truly serve the communities in which we live and work we must be part of those communities. We must be connected to those communities. We must listen to those communities. And, we must be help accountable by those communities.
The Ben Franklin Project led to new opportunities for collaboration. The Ben Franklin Project has led to new innovations. The Ben Franklin Project has led to new training and leadership opportunities. The Ben Franklin Project has led to change.
The Ben Franklin Project is not over.