Five years ago, Journal Register Co.’s new CEO used the 4th of July to run a companywide experiment aimed at declaring the newspaper chain’s “independence” from legacy media thinking and expensive, clunky and print-focused content management systems and workflows.
The Ben Franklin Project involved putting out a day’s worth of news – print editions and digital – using only free online tools and with a focus on engaging the power of the audience in our reporting.
It was a genius kickoff to John Paton‘s aggressive plan to transform a print newspaper chain into a “digital first” media company (he later renamed the company Digital First Media) because it forced culture change. There was no top-down, companywide rollout of a new system for managing content, or print production, or ad scheduling. Employees at all levels had to get together and figure out how to do it and what options worked best for them. And newsrooms across the country quickly started sharing their best ideas with each other rather than reinvent the wheel. The process resembled what has been described as “SaaS” (software as a service) navigation.
Some of the free online tools that were crucial in pulling it off – Google Docs, for example – became ubiquitous in DFM newsrooms and ad departments. Bigger immediate changes proved elusive. The company embarked on a multi-year rollout of an expensive and cumbersome legacy CMS that made the mistake of forcing print and website management into the same system – limiting the web severely.
But the lasting impact of Ben Franklin was to teach people how to be entrepreneurs and problem solvers – the proverbial teaching someone to fish. In this new digital world, changes and opportunities would arrive daily, and Ben Franklin was aimed at developing the skills and mindset to learn, adjust, react and change accordingly.
Jeff Jarvis, a Paton advisory board member when Ben Franklin launched, wrote yesterday that he was reminded of the Ben Franklin Project when he heard that Telemundo was experimenting with a national newscast shot only on mobile devices. Of course Telemundo isn’t going to ditch its traditional camera equipment and switch regularly to mobile. But the challenge of putting out a professional product on new tools will force everyone in the organization to learn how to use those new tools, and will give them the skills and mindset to tackle the next learning experience, too.
Paton stepped down as CEO of Digital First Media on July 1, almost exactly five years after the Ben Franklin Project. The company has laid off hundreds of journalists since some of Paton’s digital plans started to be dismantled by the company’s hedge fund owners a year and a half ago, and the strategy focused on deep expense cuts in preparation of a potential sale.
In many newsrooms, expense cuts have included most of the people who learned through Ben Franklin and other Paton initiatives how to be digital media entrepreneurs. At The Saratogian and Troy Record in New York, DFM buyouts last week led to the departure of the executive editor, editor, sports editor, chief photographer, a copy editor and a sports reporter, on top of layoffs last month that eliminated the city editor, digital editor, assistant sports editor and a photographer position.
Which brings us to another point about lessons from the Ben Franklin Project. Journalists don’t need to be employees of a legacy media company to do strong local journalism that pays their mortgage. You can build a website, learn how or partner with others to sell and schedule ads, or build other forms of revenue, and be your own boss. Increasingly, that kind of declaration of independence shows the most promise for lasting investment in community journalism and stability for individual journalists. Consider it your own Ben Franklin Project.