By: Mark Fitzgerald
Journal Register Co.’s Ben Franklin Project might strike some as stunt. But to CEO John Paton, the reason to make the chain’s 18 dailies to produce a newspaper using only digital tools available for free on the Internet is to force a change in thinking.
“Newspapers are process-driven,” Paton says. “And in many cases the processes are broken because the companies themselves haven’t invested in the proper IT, and our thinking gets heavily invested in this broken process.”
And if any newspaper company was broken, it was Journal Register. Though it has some of the most storied properties in the nation, such as the New Haven (Conn.) Register, it suffered for the better part of three decades under a succession of ownerships seemingly determined to test the very limits of cost-cutting. “JRC has terrible IT,” Paton says flatly. “Not terrible IT people, but terrible systems because there has not been a lot of money invested in the technology.”
Paton is one of the newspaper industry’s chief evangelists for a digital-first, print-last strategy, and Journal Register Version 1.0 might seem like an unlikely place to practice that philosophy.
Instead, it spurred him to thinking that, as he notes, would not seem radical in any other information industry but in newspapers. “If you take the crappy systems and add the need for culture change, why don’t we try crowd-source journalism, open-source journalism and populate the results of that on Web and print using only free Web-based tools?” he says.
As editor of The News-Herald in Willoughby, Ohio, Tricia Ambrose was, in effect, the first front-line guinea pig in the Ben Franklin Project, along with another News-Herald, JRC’s weekly in Perkasie, Pa. The two papers volunteered to figure out how to produce an entire paper using Web tools. Once they successfully completed their editions in May, Paton promptly announced that all 18 JRC dailies would do the same thing on July 4.
“It really forced us to accelerate — or move in the first place — to digital-first, especially some of the more veteran journalists who hadn’t quite been into Twitter and other social media,” says Ambrose.
It wasn’t always a smooth process. The News-Herald found that a lot of the digital tools simply weren’t up to the task. “If you’re at your house putting together a newsletter, they’re fabulous,” Ambrose says. “but if you’re sharing with 35 people, it’s slow going.”
Sports Editor John Kuehn, getting his section ready for the July 4 deadline at The Oakland Press in Pontiac, Mich., found himself struggling to get productivity out of the painfully slow free page-composition tool Scribus. “There’s a reason it’s free,” he says with a laugh.
Yet in many ways, sharing that learning curve energized the newsrooms, editors say. Younger journalists were suddenly the ones mentoring veterans on Web apps.
“It was nice to work on a project where everybody is fired up — and it didn’t involve a tragedy,” Ambrose says, referring to the local and national catastrophes it typically takes to get an all-hands-on-deck effort going in newsrooms.
The community engagement that resulted from crowd-sourcing was eye-opening, editors say.
Though only a few people came to the community meeting Kuehn called to discuss what the Oakland Press should cover in its sports pages, they brought a wealth of ideas that will be fueling a major series in the paper, he says.
And a far-bigger meeting in Willoughby resulted in weeks of user-generated content and crowd-sourced information about dangerous intersections and blighted properties. The meeting, videotaped and posted on YouTube, shows someone making a suggestion about investigating the city’s controversial “pay-as-you-throw” garbage collection system that had many people smuggling their trash into other municipalities for disposal. The audience burst into applause.
“When’s the last time that you pitched a story at an editorial meeting and anyone applauded?” says JRC’s Vice President of Content Jon Cooper.
As JRC rolled out the Ben Franklin Project to all of its dailies, the biggest hurdle was the sheer number of people that needed to be trained in finding and using digital tools, Cooper says. In a series of Webinars, three or four JRC content executives managed to reach about 1,100 employees from journalists to ad salespeople to back-office workers. But just as important, Cooper says, was the learning going on among employees.
“That kind of collaboration has been lacking at JRC,” he says. “But now people are finding new products and tools and saying to one another, ‘If this one doesn’t work for you, here’s another.’”
JRC created what it calls “Ben Franklin in a Box” with a large range of free apps for the project (see sidebar). The free tools, not surprisingly, is the first suite of applications JRC has in common. Like many chains, some JRC papers are running multiple versions of Quark, for instance.
“We used to have to figure workarounds for outdated software,” Cooper says. “By using these tools, we are able to keep people on a level playing field without having to worry about somebody saying, ‘I need Photoshop to take print photographs and size them for online. Well, they don’t need Photoshop. There’s Aviary and Gimp and DrPic. And these products don’t cost anything other than the time it takes to learn them.”
Cooper and CEO Paton give the distinct impression that they will be hard sells for industry vendors. As much as anything else, though, the Ben Franklin Project was about convincing JRC employees that they couldn’t wait for a new box of equipment or software to arrive before changing their mindset to digital-first. Both note that the great bulk of a newspaper’s costs are sunk in infrastructure, with just a third invested in sales, circulation, advertising and editorial.
“It’d be nice to spend that money on other operations,” Cooper muses.
Paton adds, “It’s like saying, ‘Everything will be better when we move into the new building.’ No newspaper can wait to make those fixes.”
Ben Franklin’s Tool Shed
These are some of the Web-based digital tools Journal Register Co. used in its Ben Franklin Project.
Survey Monkey — http://www.surveymonkey.com/ <http://www.surveymonkey.com/>
Polldaddy — http://polldaddy.com/
YouTube — http://www.youtube.com/
Vimeo — http://vimeo.com/
CoverItLive — http://www.coveritlive.com/
Google Docs http://doc.google.com
Open Office — http://www.openoffice.org/
Flckr — http://www.flckr.com
ShareThis — http://sharethis.com/
Gimp — http://www.gimp.org/
ClipMarks — http://clipmarks.com <http://clipmarks.com>
Photoshop.com — https://www.photoshop.com/
Picture2Life — http://www.picture2life.com/
DrPic — http://www.drpic.com/
Scribus — http://www.scribus.net/ <http://www.scribus.net/>
Aviary — http://aviary.com/