The Ben Franklin Project is, among other things, an opportunity to re-imagine the newsgathering process.
Part of the re-imagining is a focus on crowdsourcing. By placing the audience — the news consumer — at the front of the process newsrooms will have a clearer understanding of what stories are of interest to the readership. Throughout the first iteration of the Ben Franklin Project both newsrooms tested varied approaches to interact with the audience and engage the crowd. Montgomery Media held a town hall meeting to start and then moved to Facebook and social media. The News-Herald in Willoughby, Ohio had success utilizing social media tools but quickly learned that they key was asking targeted questions to the audience.
As the newsrooms participating in Ben Franklin 2.0 have learned, general requests to the audience about “what should we cover?” don’t work. As many editors have voiced during collaboration calls, the response to that question has been less than positive if it received a response at all.
In the collaborative spirit of the Ben Franklin Project newsrooms have posted their story budgets on this blog and have updated and edited (and in some cases abandoned) plans for some crowdsourced stories.
The common challenge newsrooms have faced is the initial engagement of the audience. Editors have expressed some difficulty in jump starting the interaction because we have not invested the time in the past.
And since we’re looking to share our experiences so others can benefit — the exact reason editors are collaborating on this process — here are a few of the techniques that have worked and lessons learned:
— “It’s easier to get a response by being as specific as possible on each information request and making it as easy as possible to contact the reporter,” says Tom Skoch, editor of The Morning Journal. Pointed asks or specific questions have provided better results for our newsrooms participating in the BFP.
— Tricia Ambrose, editor of The News-Herald (who hosted the first Ben Franklin effort) has provided details of her staff’s success in utilizing individual social media accounts rather than the newsroom’s general account when asking for audience input. Reporters and staffers have relationships with specific members of the audience who may be more likely to respond directly to that individual’s request rather than the newsroom’s wholesale approach. Also, have staffers pass on requests tied to areas outside their beat. Just because they cover city hall doesn’t mean that one of their contacts doesn’t have an interest in sports.
— Managing expectations and adjusting the approach to reaching the audience is important. New Haven Register (New Haven, CT) managing editor Mark Brackenbury writes the “response has been steady, though not overwhelming,” and notes that one of the newsroom’s story ideas “washed out.” The staff asked the audience to share their favorite travel vacation spots for a travel feature story and they “got no responses,” Brackenbury wrote. “We may have been asking too much – details, photos, etc.” The Register has received strong response to Facebook postings and email blasts, on stories about economic recovery, Facebook and social media use and a feature on what age is appropriate for a child to have a cell phone. Response to a story on government waste was, as Brackenbury explained, “slow to start, although it has picked up and we are continuing to seek reader input.” The Register is continuing the crowdsourcing by posting initial drafts of stories and asking readers to check them out and offer more feedback and input. A first draft of the cell phone story is here.
— Both Lisa Lewis and Jordan Fenster, editors of the Troy Record (Troy, NY) and Register-Citizen (Torrington, CT) respectively, have used some “retro” techniques to engage the audience. The Record provided flyers to downtown businesses who may be interested in discussing the newly installed downtown parking meters. This was designed to target business owners as well as downtown shoppers. Fenster’s team — aside from using online tools for surveys on downtown development and parking — have employed a similar guerrilla crowdsourcing campaign by leaving behind letters and business cards.
— Sites including the Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) and Daily Times (Delaware County, PA) have held live chats using free tools like Cover It Live to engage readers in discussions about story budgets and issues beyond the Ben Franklin Project.
As part of the Ben Franklin Project most of our newswrooms are utilizing Scribus to build ads and paginate pages for the July 4 edition. Staffers at various sites have already produced live Scribus pages as part of the prep for the July 4 edition. Training sessions have been held to cover intros to the software.
What is Scribus (according to scribus.net)
Scribus is an Open Source program that brings award-winning professional page layout to Linux/UNIX, Mac OS X, OS/2 Warp 4/eComStation and Windows desktops with a combination of “press-ready” output and new approaches to page layout. Underneath the modern and user friendly interface, Scribus supports professional publishing features, such as CMYK color, separations, Spot Colors, ICC color management and versatile PDF creation.
Part of the Ben Franklin Project is to share the knowledge and experiences learned during the process and invite others to comment, critique and improve on the efforts.
To that end, the staff at The News-Herald (OH) prepared a step-by-step guide for some of their workflow ranging from ad tracking to billing which you can see here.
By John Paton
Our successful Ben Franklin Project ( http://bit.ly/apHRbA ) has shown the world that in an industry that can be bereft of good ideas that smart people with the willingness to take a risk can produce revolutionary results.
But like all successful revolutions we need to continue the journey. And like all successful revolutions we have a goal – independence.
On July 4th we will declare our independence.
We will declare our independence from the kind of thinking that has kept our company and industry from transforming to a multi-platform news company. And we will declare our independence from an industry that ties itself up with expensive proprietary I.T. systems and processes that are outdated almost the day they are installed.
By Earl J. Wilkinson, executive director and CEO of INMA
John Paton is a hot commodity these days.
Named Editor & Publisher magazine’s “Publisher of the Year” in 2009, his “digital-first” speech at a major global industry conference late last year garnered significant attention when he was CEO of U.S.-based Spanish-language publisher impreMedia. Conference speaking appearances have become more frequent.
In early 2010, John was appointed CEO of the Journal Register Company, known for its thrift, low-tech tendencies, and high margins with its 20 small dailies and 300 non-daily publications and web sites.
In April, Journal Register CEO John Paton presented the newspapers in the company with a challenge: create a Web and print product in 30 days using only free tools, and seek help from the community to do it.
Called the Ben Franklin Project, the challenge is part of the newly appointed CEO‘s efforts to show journalists within the company why they should adopt a “digital first, print last” approach to gathering and producing news.