What we’re getting from Ben Franklin

A colleague asked me yesterday what our company was really “getting” from The Ben Franklin Project at the end of the day, and whether it was worth all the time and focus staff at 19 daily newspapers (well, 18, since the News-Herald in Ohio piloted the program earlier this year), including ours, has put into it over the past month.

Worth it?
Well, besides the incredibly positive attention this project has generated for our company (here and across the globe) and for the newspaper industry (look, someone “gets it” and is driving real change … there is hope for transformation of traditional print media), internally the Ben Franklin Project has been a transformational event in the history of our company.
Journal Register Co. Vice President of Content Jonathan Cooper explains it well in this interview with two blogging JRC reporters from Ohio.

But here’s what our newspaper is “getting” from The Ben Franklin Project:
1. Freedom from print-first legacy thinking. Every system we have had in place at our daily newspaper is built around publication of a once-a-day print edition. From the cost and functionality of our editorial system, to page layout software, to the way that the Associated Press and syndicates work, it takes money and time away from our core mission of local journalism, and it forces staff into a news cycle and focus on a platform that doesn’t fit our readers’ or advertisers’ needs. We don’t have all the answers for changing this, and we’re not ready to cut the cord on every costly newspaper production program, but Ben Franklin has got everyone recognizing the problem and feeling like they have the freedom to start changing it. And from the company’s and industry’s perspective, successfully publishing 19 daily newspapers using only free, open-source, Web-based tools is a huge statement to companies that sell expensive editorial systems (i.e., Atex) and publishing software (i.e., Adobe). Maybe we don’t need you anymore, or certainly not at the same cost, when we just did everything without you, for free.
2. Audience engagement. The Ben Franklin Project’s focus on crowdsourcing has worked wonders at our newspaper in a very short period of time in teaching reporters and editors how to engage with their audience. It is building a new trust between readers and the newspaper, because the reporting process is suddenly transparent and inclusive. And once you “get it” and start down that road, the opportunities to build that relationship are many. We assigned each reporter in our newsroom a different facet of the topic of downtown revitalization in Torrington, Connecticut, on a crowdsourcing model, and our staff ended up interacting with their readers more in a few weeks than some had in their entire time with the newspaper. For our newspaper, Ben Franklin’s focus on audience engagement also led to a new, formal “Fact Check” program that was later picked up by other papers in Journal Register Co.
3. Unity. The level of communication by staff between departments and between sister newspapers in Journal Register Co. directly due to The Ben Franklin Project has been unprecedented. I’m sure it was not the main goal of the project, but driven by the need to share ideas and learn from each other in the face of a huge challenge. But it’s a great benefit. It also helps to have a new CEO who emails the entire company and blogs regularly and urges employees to comment and disagree with him and debate and brainstorm with each other, in public, about the direction of the company. The old JRC was a “the whole is equal to less than the sum of its parts” situation. It is changing to a company that is accomplishing way more than its size and resources should be able to accomplish.
4. Entrepreneurship at every level. When our reporters got their Ben Franklin assignments, it was left up to them to crowdsource using open source tools of their choosing. Different reporters told the story using video, slide shows, opinion surveys, map-based tools, timelines, Google doc presentations. It’s been like kids in a candy store as they discovered new open source, free online tools to enhance the gathering and presentation of local news. The Ben Franklin Project has empowered reporters to act like the start-up blogs and online news outlets that have sprung up in the void of traditional media failing to adapt to the changes brought about by new technology and social media. We show glimpses of moving from a lumbering, top-down stagnant culture to an idea incubator where growth of the business is driven by the creativity and initiative of front-line employees. CEO John Paton is reinforcing a move to that culture with follow-up projects such as the Idea Lab.
5. Better journalism. Let’s face it. In a small newsroom, we end up producing a lot of two-source, or even one-source, stories. Even when we can take the time to have a reporter interview seven people, or 10 people, on an important topic, how can that compare to putting your work out there to 30,000 people as potential sources? And even better, putting the assignment itself out there are the start of the process, to ask whether we are even asking the right questions or examining the right thing? Crowdsourcing gave us the best, most comprehensive and most contextualized look at the six-decade-old topic of downtown revitalization that we’ve ever produced at our newspaper. And it is gaining more readership than past stories because the audience trusts it and is engaged with it, because they were part of it!
5. Lasting change. Directly related? Not sure, but certainly a product of the environment that Journal Register Co. is creating with The Ben Franklin Project, we are seeing editors and publishers take it upon themselves to make game-changing transformations of the way that they operate. See The Middletown Press’s switch to a truly “digital-first” approach to news. We will be following suit soon by having reporters and editors file stories to the Web site, and having copy editors use the Web as a content-management system for the print edition, meaning everything goes online first, and the print edition is a curated, once-a-day version of our core product, a living, interactive, around-the-clock digital news and information service.

Was The Ben Franklin Project worth it, all that work on a “one-day” experiment? I would say that Journal Register Company could have spent $1 million and years of effort on training, retreats, motivational speeches, team-building exercises, etc., and not created the level of buy-in and cultural transformation that this project has achieved in a very short period of time.


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