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Journal Register Company: Hurricane Irene meets Ben Franklin

New Haven Register

New Haven Register staff members file reports after The Register's newsroom lost power.

By Jon Cooper, @jemersoncooper

About 14 months ago the Journal Register Company’s Ben Franklin Project challenged our staffers to imagine their reporting and newsgathering processes without any of the systems they were used to using. At that time the assignment was to promote innovation and challenge our existing workflow. That experiment showed long-tail value this past weekend as journalists from across Journal Register Company deployed to cover Hurricane Irene.

What follows includes the practical application – including examples – of how Journal Register Company staffers from across the Northeast created one of the largest, local breaking-news-gathering networks in the nation. They did so by focusing on the audience; leveraging social media; and by using free tools to keep the communities they serve informed.

CONTACT LISTS: Newsrooms who expected to be impacted by Irene quickly transferred contact lists (staff lists and local contacts) from proprietary systems into Google docs and – in a very analog move – encouraged staffers to carry paper copies of the list in case power was lost. This proved necessary as more than one newsroom lost power during the weekend.

An emergency newsroom was set up in the computer server room.

TECH: Outside of the JRC Help Desk – 24-hour support desk – the Company’s tech team activated another 40 mobile cards so journalists could work outside the newsroom. Staffers utilized the Lenovos to file from an ad hoc newsroom after the New Haven Register in Connecticut lost power and New Haven faced flooding. In support of the Pennsylvania group, an emergency newsroom was set up in the Company’s computer server room – supported by reserve generators.

STAFFING: Journalists from across the Company’s Connecticut group set up schedules – including journalists from The New Haven Register, The Middletown Press, The Register Citizen and weeklies – for aggregation, social media and desk coverage. The schedules focused on traditional geographic beats but stressed the importance of digital coverage including video, website management, social media and audience engagement. Staffers – including reporters Susan Misur, Alexandra Sanders and Brian McCready – engaged their own Facebook followers to help drive stories while covering their beats.

“The factor that stands out the most was that each and every staff member was working this weekend – including those who simply came in despite not being scheduled,” said Helen Bennett Harvey, The Register’s City Editor. “It wasn’t just about reporting the storm, its damage and aftermath – it was about bringing folks news they really needed – what they should do to prepare, how they could get help – the details that make a difference. The real beauty of being Digital First is that we build the public’s trust in us … we received extraordinary photos from folks – giving many people a chance to be part of our reporting.”

Helen Bennett Harvey, The Register’s City Editor, charges her laptop in her car.

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION: The Trentonian‘s Joey Kulkin kept conversations with the community alive on Facebook and via Twitter. Kulkin and the Trenton team not only aggregated newsworthy reports from the audience but also served as a meeting place for members of the community looking for help and offering help.

“When something like Irene hits, it’s important to deliver news in a clear, strong voice because that’s what the public demands from you as a trusted source,” says Kulkin. “At the same time, on the ‘social media’ end of things, you really need to connect to your readers … I think it’s one of the reason we have a great Facebook/Twitter relationship with our Trentonian.com readers. We don’t try to lord over anyone. We’re all in it together.”

Users of NewHavenRegister.com logged issues on SeeClickFix.

SEECLICKFIX: According to Emma Richard and Ben Berkowitz at the non-emergency reporting portal, SeeClickFix reports doubled due to the storm and Journal Register Company newsrooms invited the audience to use the portal to help alert town officials of road closures and more.

A member of The Daily Freeman’s audience in Kingston, N.Y. reported a tree on power lines; members of The Daily Local’s audience in West Chester, Penn. reported downed power lines; and residents in Lansdale, Pa. reported power outages and flooding on The Reporter’s site.

LET THE AUDIENCE IN: As audience members pushed reports through social media – especially Twitter – Journal Register Company journalists received story suggestions, photos and videos. From The Daily Freeman’s photo galleries to The Trentonian’s crowdsourced map of road closures and flooding, audience members were willing to contribute and share what they are seeing in real time.

“Social media and other tools of engagement help these people tell their own stories in words, photos and videos,” says Steve Buttry, JRC’s Director of Community Engagement. “News organizations that engage effectively in covering a disaster will benefit beyond the inevitable traffic surge of the big story. As the water recedes, these people will continue engaging through the process of recovery and the return to the daily routine.”

VIDEO, VIDEO & MORE VIDEO: The ability to level the playing field and offer audiences more localized video than broadcast outlets played a large role in Journal Register’s coverage of Irene. A user-submitted video showing Irene’s arrival in North Carolina on The Reporter’s website proved to be one of JRC’s most popular during the storm’s early hours. JRC journalists like Paula Ann Mitchell of The Daily Freeman produced multiple Irene-related videos and The Register’s Peter Hvizdak provided a new take on the traditional pre-storm shopping story.

A BACK UP PLAN: Along with identifying alternative newsrooms and lining up remote printing facilities, Journal Register Company newsrooms also prepped to produce publications without the proprietary systems we usually use. Page templates, standing art elements and advertisements were saved offline as a precaution. Power outages did cause some sites to have to utilize backup templates to produce the newspaper.

CUSTOMER SERVICE: With scattered flooding our ability to reach all print subscribers was impacted so daily pubs, who were constantly updating websites with real-time reporting, also supplied free e-paper access to subscribers.

There are many other takeaways from the this weekend and many other Journal Register Company staffers who aren’t named above who contributed. Hurricane Irene proved an opportunity to showcase the collaborative workflow, digital skills and the focus on audience of our team members. To paraphrase what many Journal Register Company journalists — many of whom also dealt with downed trees, flooded basements and power outages at their own homes — said during phone calls and email exchanges during the hurricane … it’s what we’re supposed to do.

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Editor & Publisher on Journal Register’s Ben Franklin Project

“It’s like saying, ‘Everything will be better when we move into the new building.’ No newspaper can wait to make those fixes.” — Journal Register Company CEO John Paton in the July 2010 edition of Editor & Publisher

The Journal Register Company’s Ben Franklin Project is featured in the July 2010 edition of Editor & Publisher. If you missed Mark Fitzgerald’s story you can click here to read a copy.

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More great ideas on free tools for your sites

This list comes courtesy of Lisa Bu, New Media Content Director at Wisconsin Public Radio. PhD candidate in Journalism at UW-Madison.

We haven’t met Lisa but her compilation is pretty impressive.

We’re especially excited to take a look at Kaltura — an open-source video editing solution. Anyone who has tried it we’d ask that you let us know your thoughts.

Now, more from Lisa …

There are tons of free and good tools online to help public broadcasters (and others) accomplish essential online media tasks such as creating and posting image, audio and video files, having audience share content with one another, and so on. Below are some of the free and easy tools that I have accumulated so far. Please add yours to the list and together we can build an impressive online tool kit for public media. (Click here for the rest of her list)

As always, please post your suggestions for tools and we’ll keep sharing them with the followers here.

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What needs to continue … by former Journal Register Company reporter

If you haven’t read the blog post by former Kingston Daily Freeman reporter Steve Earley  on the Ben Franklin Project it’s surely worth a read. Steve highlights some of the stories sites tackled but, more importantly, offers insight into what must happen for the change to continue.

His comments about Twitter should be noted not just by JRC sites but by all media outlets who continue to use Twitter as a mirror of the one-way delivery method.

Here’s the highlights. (Read the full post here)

  • It will require a firm technical and strategic grasp of the tools used to produce today’s editions. Employees, who had just over a month to learn many of the free tools they used, are by their own admission still getting the hang of pagination program Scribus. Microblogging service Twitter, meanwhile, is of greatest value to news organizations when they use it to converse with audience members and sources (two-way/pull/new-media thinking), yet many JRC papers use their Twitter feeds only to push out links to their stories (one-way/push/old-media thinking).
  • More than anything, it will require a bottom-up embrace of the digital-first, innovation culture Paton is evangelizing. No print-versus-Web, us-versus-them, that’s-not-part-of-my job whining.
  • It will require abandoning these tools at the drop of a hat and learning new ones as better alternatives come along.
  • It will require engaging audience members — meeting them on the platforms they’re already using or educating them about the platforms they should be using — to the point they don’t have to be persuaded to participate.
  • It will require not letting the new way of doing things disrupt what was right about the old way. As empowering as they are, interactive tools are a complement to thorough, old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting, not a replacement for it.

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The Possibility of a Company-wide FREE Ad Tracking/Editorial System

By Karl Sickafus, Daily Local
With the Ben Franklin exercise came many questions and surprising answers. Can we do “what we do” with freeware? Well, the answer was a profound “yes-we-can”! We proved that we can both publish online and in print using nothing but freeware. Was this experiment honest or just a publicity stunt? It depends on whom you talk to. Some people took the challenge fully by the horns and answered a lot of questions. Others gave it very little thought and even less enthusiasm. The first group, hopefully, is the future of JRC and the second group will probably not be publishing newspapers much longer

Most of us know it is extremely expensive to publish a newspaper. The advertising revenue just isn’t there any more to support our publishing endeavors. So, we can either, not change a thing and publish our way into final bankruptcy. Or we can reinvent and retool every nook and cranny of this insane business.

Two groups need to take on the challenges of our future. One group needs to pave the way for our online publishing future. Anyone can publish a newspaper online – it’s a no-brainer. However, no one has figured out how to support it with ad dollars. Our online group needs to be staffed by fresh new young enterprising, innovative, inventive and creative (and any other clever adjective) people. They, somehow, are going to have to figure out how to keep our online publications fresh, informative and profitable. That is no short order. Without the success of that group our future is bleak at best. Literally, our best (open) minds need to be fully involved in that group.

The other group needs to take all that we have gleaned from the Ben Franklin project and figure out how to get hardcopy newsprint into the hands of our audience in a timely and less costly manner. Most of our information technology (IT) infrastructure costs go towards producing newsprint newspapers. We have systems for editorial, systems for advertising, systems for classifieds, systems for design, systems for financials, systems for systems, and other systems that no one even knows what they are for. With all of that said, we still have properties that have no systems at all. In a nutshell, our IT has been mismanaged into the patchwork shambles it is today.

Laying type and images on pages, transmitting them to printing facilities and delivering a printed product into the hands of our audience requires massive infrastructure and a lot of technology. That is “what we do”. We just have to do it better with less complexity and far fewer costs.

The second group needs to be made up of our most technically minded people. They will need to take the tools from the Ben Franklin project and hone them into workable solutions to our challenging IT environment. Arguably, the single most valuable find of the Ben Franklin project is the “open source” desktop publishing package (DTP) called Scribus. Collectively, we have easily invested hundreds of hours researching and learning how Scribus can be used in place of our various proprietary editorial and advertising systems. We know it can work, because it did work. We made it work! We published hundreds of pages and ads using nothing but this freeware.

We did it “manually” that is, without our content management systems (CMS) which control our off-the-shelf and proprietary DTP packages. With the amount of talent we have in JRC, we could easily replace our Alfa(s), Prestige(s), CNI(s), and BaseView(s) with Scribus and minimal homegrown programming.

Some sites went far and beyond using Scribus just to design ads and pages. They learned how to use the “open source” scripting and external programming that are compatible with Scribus. This DTP freeware could easily replace Quark, Muti-Ad and In-Design over-night. Those three packages alone amount to a lot of dollars for a lot of designers. Scripting for Scribus has proven to be extremely easy. This opens the door for our in-house programmers to develop our own CMS(s) to control and manage content used by Scribus. Google Docs and Google Forms proved to be useful and can easily be adapted for input into Scribus.

Content management systems were not investigated in depth for the Ben Franklin project due to our short turnaround time. However, CMS is just that, it is content m-a-n-a-g-e-m-e-n-t. JRC has cultivated intellectual property in the form of skills developed while programming “real world” database management, which easily could be redirected into designing viable database solutions for our CMS needs while incorporating the freeware we recently investigated. It’s going to take new thinking with fresh new management. If one were to replace the Alfa(s), Prestige(s), CNI(s), BaseView(s) and ATEX(s) with homegrown solutions using nothing but freeware, the amount of money saved would be staggering. We could devote less overhead to proprietary “software” and more “hard cash” to our ailing IT infrastructure.

We can literally do EVERYTHING we do using nothing but freeware. We just proved that. But, what are we going to do with than newly generated energy? Are we going to go back to doing the “things we do” the same way we are accustomed to, while reminiscing of the long forgotten Ben Franklin project? That would make absolutely no sense what so ever.

Some in our company are still wanting and researching new ad tracking, advertising and editorial system solutions for JRC. That seems like such a waste of time, energy, money and resources. We can solve our own needs using the tools we have just investigated with the Ben Franklin project. Using ten lines of code, one of our properties imported text from a database into a Scribus document. With 20 lines of code they could have imported an image as well. Text and images on a page — is that not what we do? Can you imagine if we consolidated our programming resources and wrote 200 lines of code? We would probably already have a finished ad tracking/ editorial system up and running. It really is “that” easy. But doing it, means “doing” it. We can talk it to death. The Ben Franklin project pretty much demonstrates our need to just “do it” and forget shopping for new proprietary systems.

“When you’re finished changing, you’re finished.” — Benjamin Franklin

Read more on the tools used during The Ben Franklin Project here

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Let Freedom Ring and Let Change Continue

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.

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Ben Franklin … The Movie

A number of Journal Register Company newsrooms developed video promos and reports tied to their work as part of the Ben Franklin Project. Here is a sampling of a few:

The Morning Sun (Mt. Pleasant, Michigan)

The Delaware County Times (Delaware County, Pennsylvania)

The Register (New Haven, Connecticut)

The Times Herald (Norristown, Pennsylvania)

The Saratogian (Saratoga Springs, New York)

The Dispatch (Oneida, New York)

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