Independence day for newspapers

Today Journal Register, a newspaper company, declared its freedom from old publishing methods and old journalistic methods. The company’s 18 dailies published today, July 4, using nothing but free, web-based tools. And they involved their communities in their journalism in new ways. They call this the Ben Franklin Project.

Here’s their VP of content, Jon Cooper, reporting on the work of the project in each paper (my emphasis):

The difference between how these stories are usually written and how they were written for today is the process. In many cases the stories reported as part of the BFP began with the audience. The people who are usually last in line were moved to the front of the process. Rather than just being able to read the finished product, the audience – through town hall meetings, social networking sites, direct requests via email and in person and more – was asked to help determine what the editorial staffs should cover.

This took the in-company collaboration to where it needs to be – collaboration between the audience and our organizations. To truly serve the communities in which we live and work we must be part of those communities. We must be connected to those communities. We must listen to those communities. And, we must be help accountable by those communities.

And here’s their CEO, John Paton praising his staff for their accomplishment:

On this Independence Day, you have declared that our Company’s future will be freed from expensive and restrictive proprietary publishing systems but more importantly that our Company will be freed from the old way of thinking about how we do business. You have ensured we will become a Company with a future and one that will continue in its mission to serve our communities with compelling local journalism.

And while the tools you have found and adapted are an achievement, it is our new approach to journalism which is the true revolution here. The Ben Franklin Project is the beginning of a new era of an open and transparent newsgathering process. Our publications harnessed the power of their audiences to tell stories of importance to their communities. Those stories ranged from childhood obesity to property taxes.

This is all the more remarkable because Journal Register is an oft-bankrupt, long-neglected, poor waif of a newspaper group that is suddenly seeing new life under the leadership of Paton, who is bringing his precepts and success from Spanish-language publisher ImpreMedia — digital first, print last — to this company. I’m advising him (along with my friends Jay Rosen, Betsy Morgan, and Jim Willse).

It was only a few months ago that John and I sat in my office at CUNY and he told me about the laughably deplorable state of technology in the company he’d just taken over. He said they still have VDTs. If you came into the news business after about 1980, you’ve probably never heard the term and assume it’s something cured with a shot. Video display terminals hooked into old mainframe publishing systems were how we published starting in the ’70s (I’ll date myself badly and say that I started on them at the Chicago Tribune in 1974). They were replaced in the ’80s and ’90s by PCs. But JRC still had them. That’s how bad it was.

Paton told me he was looking at having to spend $25 million just to get the company’s technology up to date. Hold on. We took to the white board and brainstormed how one could publish a paper today using Google Docs, Flickr, and WordPress. Paton, as is his habit, took my bull(shit) by the horns and ran with it. His staff found other, better free tools to do everything (even advertising). He printed one test edition of a paper to prove it could be done. Then he decreed that all his dailies would do this on one day, on July 4. More important, he used this as a means to get the staffs to think differently about their relationships with their communities, to act differently in how they made journalism. And they did it. Theyr’e not dealing in some theoretical future of news talked about by consultants and professors. [cough] They are building it.

A friend of mine who’s met Paton [that’s Mark Potts] asks why it took the newspaper industry 15 years to get a Paton, a leader with the guts to see a new future for the business rather than merely trying to protect the past. I don’t know but I tell news executives around the world to watch what’s happening at humble JRC. There’s a future there.

  • Hello, dear Jeff !

    … a real interesting report about the re-polishing of a senior in newpaper making.

    One question here about: Does exist a workflow sheet / documentary anywhere about Paton’s re-structuring ? – I think, its interesting for many NGO organisation, who have kind of newspapers and broschures (kind of printed Newsletters) to learn from.

    What I found very interesting to bring a Newspaper format onto a pure inter-active online format as you can see it now with html5 (as it was presented during the Google IO Keynote)

    WIRED does it in a beautful way…

    similar example of Sports Illustrated…

    Yet I have not found any informations on the web about a fully digital data workflow process – based on open sources – to create such formats and which tools are required to bring it from a Journalist’s office desk onto that (mobile) format… – Do you have any idea ?

    Less for NGOs I think, a more a low cost solution than that one of Wired and Sports Illustrated might be interesting: finishing the ePublishing with a PDF file and let it format into html5 by services like Scribd does it:

    Even for radio moderators – especially from Civilian Radio (mostly non commercial) who have scripts about their shows a fully digial data (supply) chain would be very helpful to deliver the text sript as interative form to the listeners. I have my own shows on Germany’s leading Civilian radio/TV station in Hamburg. We are already 100% digitalized; but yet we have many missing interfaces to establish a 100% data workflow.

    Hearing from you…

    warm regards
    from hot European Summer, Hamburg (Germany)

    P.S.: I follow the show Twig/Google you have with Leo and Gina on Twit TV. I really love it. It’s so informative and compared with the stiff German way, total relaxed. Great Job you all are doing !

  • This is a great breakthrough (but only a start). Paton understands clearly that change comes through action. Too many efforts at innovation go no further than lip service and changing organizational titles and structures, an issue I addressed in my blog:

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  • Srsly was it too much to ask for you to link to them?

    • Uh, I did. What links do you mean? See Jon and John’s posts and they have links to everything.

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  • Linda Mandel

    Jordan, Can you contrast and compare the edition of today’s web based newspaper with the normal format? Did you still publish a print version? Are the advertising revenues comparable? Happy 4th. Wish you were with us. Love.

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  • I agree with ElJay’s comments – please can you share more so that NGOs can understand the workflow process – would be really fascinating and helpful for us.

  • My local is one of those dailies, the Norristown Times-Herald. I’m so glad you’re consulting with these folks. When I read their two stories today about the project, it really seemed like there was a fire lit under the editor, and a good kind of fire – a positive, motivating spark.

    Every time non-technical people are forced to manage with change, they grumble – it’s a hardship, they’re forced to learn a new way of working. I could not hear a grumble in their stories. All I could hear was optimism about what’s possible. It’s like they already understand this transformative change is going to be a win and a new kind of journalism.

    Well done all around!

    • Undertoad,
      Well said. That’s what the team at JRC is doing best.

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  • Garbanzo

    This is all fine, but the $64K question in newspapering is how to make money. Being hyperlocal is pretty damn easy if an organization as f*’ed up as JRC could transition in a few months. Unlike pure-play startups that can live in VC $ for years before finding an equity exit with an acquirer, newspapers actually have to show profits. As many JRC properties are tiny and probably wouldn’t drive more than 100,000 page views per day (x $12 RPM = $1,200 in daily revenue), seems like a lot of unpaid journalism will be required. Doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try it, but the hardest problems lay ahead.

  • Courier

    My question is whether Murdoch’s attempt to generate cash from online content will lead the way, others will follow. Or if his initiative will be ignored by his competitors who believe that the future of news is free and they’ll need to monetize their work in others way – with the assumption that advertising revenues will soon return.

    • Andy Freeman

      “Old journalism” had multiple montetization strategies/biz models so it’s unclear why anyone would assume that “new journalism” will have just one.

      Some products will succeed with a paywall, some pay per view and others subscription based. Some products will have to make it with advertising. Still others will use other strategies.

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  • I’ll be interested to see how the JRC’s freeware/open-source IT arrangement works out on the days when these two certain events in the life of a journalism or publishing company occur:

    — A government agency arrives with a court order for some data they are housing on a server owned by one of these freeware services.

    — A critical piece of software or the underlying network decides it’s not going to function, one hour from deadline.

    I hope they are using some of the money they saved on the software to keep a few crack lawyers and developers on a 24/7 service contingency.

    • Oh, believe me, I saw plenty of expensive proprietary hardware and software not work an hour from deadline.

      • Deadline is when the presses have no more time to run to make morning delivery. So when you’re publishing to the web first, and the web is your priority, and the paper version just reflects what hit the web,… there is no such thing as deadline.

    • Andy Freeman

      > A government agency arrives with a court order for some data they are housing on a server owned by one of these freeware services.

      So what? There has never been an obligation to have physical custody of records. The obligation is wrt “make available” and “don’t delete”, which can be satisfied. (Some biz have privacy obligations that can be tough to satisfy “in the cloud”, but journalism isn’t one of them.)

      Yes, “the man” likes to seize things, but that’s not an obligation to have seizable things.

  • @Garbanzo is spot on

    job one is (was) building a lean, digital first culture – Paton and the team at JRC are well on the way here

    but the bigger question remains – how do media outlets make money in a post-digital landscape?

  • Mr. Bean has hit the nail on the head. “How do media outlets make money in a post-digital landscape?”

    What are we at, a billion web pages and counting?

    How do I keep my audience at with a billion reasons not to?

    Well, I had better answer that question now, or start flipping burgers.

    If I can attract and KEEP an audience, maybe I can make a successful pitch to my advertisers.

    Then again, maybe not…

    But, I’m going to at least try, before I start working at McDonalds.

    How many web sites does my average audience visit on an average day? Boy, would that be a valuable statistic to have!

    They probably go to various sites for different content. Maybe a couple for news, a few for sports, one or two for entertainment… I am sure they visit their state’s lottery site every day. And you know they visit game sites on their breaks. Then they catch up on their social needs at a few different sites.

    If we make these assumptions, then why not design a web site for, where all, or most of their needs are met? Maybe we link to other sites inside or outside of our company to satisfy certain needs. Maybe we design new content within our group to keep the audience here.

    Do we have content for everyone? Why on God’s green earth would any “young” person ever visit Well, we had better find a reason, and fast! They are our future.

    Maybe our site has areas for each and every school we serve in our community. Kids post sports scores and share social thoughts and news events. We let them make their own site within ours. We begin to make our community “paper” a place to WANT TO BE. With digital first and print last, we print the best of the best. That is their incentive to keep their sites fresh and honest.

    Maybe we design the world’s most interactive lottery page, where a user would not even think of abandoning for another site. Why not slick and fancy game pages. They stay at our site during their breaks. High scorers win prizes from advertisers?

    We offer the local news, of course, but our regional, state, national and world is still there, formatted smartly, fresh and up-to-the-minute. There is no reason for our audience to leave. That is the key.

    We keep our social sites fresh, funny and informative. We must make our social “persona” something people are going to WANT to “follow” and “friend”. Otherwise, we are out of business. Just another site in the sea of billions ……