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 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.

Cross posted at buzzmachine.com

Jeff Jarvis blogs about media and news at Buzzmachine.com. The author of What Would Google Do? (HarperCollins 2009), Jarvis is associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program at ...read more

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