7 things newspapers can learn from the Ben Franklin Project

Monday, July 5th, 2010 @ 7:00 am | Media

I heard a few months back about a pretty forward thinking project by the Journal Register newspaper company in the U.S. called the Ben Franklin Project.

The papers would publish their print editions and websites using nothing but free tools and crowdsourced journalism.

From their site:

The Journal Register Company’s Ben Franklin Project is an opportunity to re-imagine the newsgathering process with the focus on Digital First and Print Last. Using only free tools found on the Internet, the project will – from assigning to editing- create, publish and distribute news content on both the web and in print.

Traditionally the model has been for the reporter/editor to determine what should be covered and how it should be covered. That story would then weave its way through the journalistic process – reporters gathering facts from the usual stable of sources and the editors guiding the efforts – before ending on the printed page. From there the vast majority of newspapers have then pushed those stories onto the web. They are literally going from a slow medium to fast. And that’s just backwards both in timing and audience desires.

The project involved some 18 publications and wrapped up over the July 4th weekend. The projects appear to be a success and there are definitely a lot of very exciting lessons here for adventurous publications. I’ve listed some of them below, but there’s lots to mine here from the BFP’s blog.

1. Kill that crappy CMS

Everyone (and I mean EVERYONE) hates their CMS (content management system). The CMS is that cursed thing that you use to get copy/photos/etc. to your website and most of them kinda suck. Why? They’re usually designed with print workflows in mind which are pretty terrible for the Web. In many cases they’re also built by a small team of developers who just don’t have the know-how or resources to put out a decent product. Also, lots of them are proprietary, which means if they break down or you want something developed, you have to rely on the company that built it for you to fix your problem.

So can you replace it with a free product? Maybe. At the Post we’ve been using WordPress. The Post hosts our blogs on WordPress VIP, which isn’t free… but you could very easily install it on your servers for very cheap. For the record, the BFP is hosting their blog and newspaper sites on WordPress.

2. Save on software costs

Lets do a bit of scratchpad math. A software licence for Adobe Photoshop costs about $200. Multiply that by the 100 computers or so in a medium-sized newsroom. Multiply that again by the number of other software products you’ll need (Indesign? Word? Excel?). Those costs add up.

The BFP showed that free and open source software can do the work of expensive software and get decent results. If you’re a small-town paper, a college publication or, more interestingly, a publication in the developed world that doesn’t want to run afoul of software piracy laws, open-source could be an option.

3. Learn how to crowdsource

Maybe more interesting than the software side of the BFP is the reporting experiments. The editors and reporters learned how to get input from their audience, brainstorm story ideas and drive coverage.

Here’s a sampling:

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.

4. Think big

The BFP is a perfect example of thinking big about change. We’re not talking about asking staffers to blog more or get on Twitter, Facebook. We’re talking about a major rethink about how 18 newspapers (!!!) report, edit, design and publish their products. You’ll run into difficulties small and large, but if you trust your staff they’ll power through it.

5. Just do it

When trying new things no amount of reading, planning and practice can replace actually doing things. A quick skim of the BFP blog shows that the staff at these papers ran into problems and discovered things in their day-to-day operations. But every problem solved and tip learned is potentially valuable down the road.

6. Leadership buy-in is a must

This project was spearheaded by Journal Register CEO John Paton. Having your boss dive right into the project and leading by example is key. Here’s a publisher who runs his own WordPress blog, is active on Twitter and can actually say “digital first” and mean it.

His address to Journal Register Company employees back in February is heartening and visionary stuff:

I think accountability journalism is threatened in this country as newspapers struggle to find their way to a profitable future. And I think that threatens this country because we provide some of the key checks and balances in our communities. What we do is important and what we do is worth saving. And that means we have to change.

For all of the challenges we face I also believe these are some of the most exciting times to be in the business of local journalism.

New technologies and seismic developments such as social media are, if we are an open and questing company, allowing us to experiment in ways to truly participate with the audience. By opening ourselves up to ideas and partnerships within our communities and those companies that are harnessing technology to both create and distribute information, we can participate with the audience in ways we have never done before. And we can become better providers of local journalism.

7. Don’t stop

Now that the BFP is over the Journal Register Company is keeping the momentum going. The company has created the ideaLab, where their most innovative journalists will be equipped with the latest gear (iPhone, iPad, netbook) and guaranteed 10 hours a week to work on their own projects. The Nieman Lab likes it. I do too.

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