I think it’s possible today to run a news organization — up to the point of publishing — from the cloud, changing not only the production process of news but also its culture. John Paton, CEO of Journal Register, is about to prove it with his Ben Franklin Project.
John and I were sitting in my CUNY office as he told me about the technology he’s saddled with at this orphaned newspaper company where he just took the helm. He used a term I swear I hadn’t heard in well more than a decade: “VDT.” That stand for “video display terminal,” the old, dumb box that was wired into newspaper mainframes. I was talking with a bunch of young journalists shortly afterwards and they’d never heard of VDTs (though they thought it could be cured with a shot). Well, Paton still has VDTs.
And so, as he was talking about having to buy new computers, I took to the whiteboard and drew out how I think a news(paper) can be produced from WordPress, Google Docs, and Flickr (or their equivalents). We’ll get to the other functions shortly.
This up-in-the-air production is made possible by Paton’s edict at JRC (as he dictated at ImpreMedia before) that digital comes first, print last. If print comes first, newspaper people will worry about H&J (hyphenation & justification — that is, fitting text to finite holes in print designs). That dictated their process.
But not JRC. By putting print at the end of the line, production for paper won’t dictate the rest of the line. So now a reporter can start blogging at the beginning of a story. And that makes a profound shift in the culture of news: it opens up the process to the public. “Here’s what I think I’ll work on,” the reporter says to the community she covers. “Good idea? Is there something else you think I should do instead? What’s the best use of my time? What do you want me to find out for you? If I do this story, what questions do you have? What do you know? Whom should I call?” As the process continues, the reporter can share what she learns — and doesn’t learn — and the community can help fill in blanks and make the reporting better.
At some point in this process, the reporter likely will write what we’d still recognize as an article. Indeed, writing it before publication opens the possibility of the community still helping by correcting and enhancing.
Then a print editor can grab the story and fit it for print. No longer a big deal.
At the same time, the reporter and editor can ask the community for photos to illustrate the story. They can be shared via Flickr. When it’s time to print, an editor can copy the high-resolution version of an image. If the photographer chooses, he can make the photo available under Creative Commons. If the paper chooses to (as Bild does in Germany), it can pay. That’s up to them. The taking of photos can become competitive: a reader says “I can beat that.”
There are still bureaucratic details that must be handled: schedules of stories, who’s working on what, and so on. Google Docs is perfect for that. My CUNY colleague Jeremy Caplan showed our faculty how much more Docs can do: enabling reporters to, for example, graph data and create their own illustrations. Docs can be used to publish documents to the web.
From these three streams, content can come to a print editor — who is now, remember, at the end of the line — to fill the paper (which my friend and fellow JRC advisor Jay Rosen points out, is the most expensive space). The readers can even help the editor decide what deserves ink.
Note the profound cultural shift this new process brings to a news organization. Rather than doing everything we do and then sharing it with the public — and allowing them to comment on (or snark at) our work — we become transparent, we view news as a process instead of a product, and we open up our process to constructive collaboration with the community we serve. Hallelujah.
The rest of the process of publishing a newspaper is more complicated — at least to me, as I don’t know the tools. I’m not sure all that can be done with free tools but I’ll bet it can all be done in the cloud. At a Salesforce.com event last week, I talked with an exec who said that his service can be used to handle ad order entry. Other systems can handle business tracking, payroll, H&R, and such. I don’t think JRC needs to be dogmatic about living in the cloud but I do think it can avoid huge expense of buying and integrating new systems and hardware.
All this is why I’m delighting in advising JRC and Paton. They are going to try to do the things I’ve been wanting to see news(papers) do — I’ve been writing about this since at least 2005 — the things that tradition and fear prevented other papers from doing. They’re not alone. AnnArbor.com (which I also advised) is entirely on Movable Type. Online news organizations, of course, operate on blogs. But here’s the chance to jump a newspaper company from the past — from the age of VDTs and discs — to the future. I can’t wait to watch and help.