Ben Franklin Project’s ‘Digital First, Print Last’ Approach Produces First Products

In April, Journal Register CEO John Paton presented the newspapers in the company with a challenge: create a Web and print product in 30 days using only free tools, and seek help from the community to do it.

Called the Ben Franklin Project, the challenge is part of the newly appointed CEO‘s efforts to show journalists within the company why they should adopt a “digital first, print last” approach to gathering and producing news.

Journalists at the selected papers — The News-Herald in Willoughby, Ohio, and The News-Herald in Perkasie, Pa. — finished their production for the project this week. In many ways, they say, the project shows how adopting a digital-first approach can help newsrooms harness the power of the community and maximize their use of free tools to create content that is both cost-effective and aligned with what their audiences want.

“When we started out, we said, ‘We’re going to do what? How are we going to do this?’ ” said Laura Kessel, managing editor of the Willoughby News-Herald. “Now we’re showing ourselves that we can operate in a world that, even six months ago, used to be foreign to us.” 

Prior to Paton’s arrival, she said by phone, Web innovation wasn’t stressed at the company. That’s not true for all news organizations, as many have been crowdsourcing content and using free tools for years. But regardless of where your news outlet falls on the innovation spectrum, there are still lessons to be learned from the Ben Franklin Project project and what it’s taught journalists about adapting to the new news ecology.

The benefits of encouraging experimentation, taking a digital first, print last approach

Paton explained in a phone interview that the project is his attempt to institute a cultural change in a once-struggling newspaper company that he wants to transform into a “multi-platform news and information company.”

He noted that like other newspapers in the company and industry-wide, the Willoughby News-Herald (a daily) and the Perkasie News-Herald (a weekly) follow a traditional newsgathering model: a reporter or editor determines what should be covered and how it should be covered, gathers the information, produces the story and, finally, puts the content online.

Taking a digital first, print last approach motivates journalists to tap into readers before they even start reporting. To inform their reporting, journalists at both papers have used polls, online chats and other free tools to ask readers what stories they want the paper to cover and what questions they want answered about their community.

When reporting on a story about local electric rates earlier this month, Perkasie News-Herald Managing Editor Emily Morris asked the community via Twitter and Facebook to share their questions about the rates. She then asked those questions during an interview with local officials and created a separate article listing the answers.

“We’ve always engaged the residents, but this was interesting in that we let them tell us what should we cover,” Morris said in a phone interview. “When I was sitting there asking sources questions, I found out a lot more information because they were put to task to provide a lot of answers to some really tough questions that residents put out there.”

The News-Herald used Timetoast, a free tool that lets you create interactive time lines, to show a history of the Perkasie Borough electric system. It also used Pollsb.com to create a poll that asked readers for their thoughts on the electric rates. Both features appeared in Morris’ story.

Paton and Jon Cooper, the Journal Register’s vice president of content who’s helping to lead the project, have made the point that journalists turn to the public all the time when they need sources. So why not turn to them for ideas and user-generated content? User-generated content, Paton said, is “not a replacement for journalists; it’s a new pipeline for information that journalists have to use.”

Paton said the Ben Franklin Project stresses the importance not just of crowdsourcing, but of moving away from proprietary systems and toward free, open-source tools.

“The print business model is too expensive to run going forward, so that means we need to think about using these new tools that are available to us,” Paton said. “We can use the tools that the Fifth Estate uses and we can lower our cost structure dramatically. And we’ll still be left with those deep roots in the community.”

Community responds to papers’ efforts, use of free tools

The Perkasie News-Herald held a town hall meeting last month to solicit story ideas for the Ben Franklin project, and used UStream to broadcast the meeting for those who couldn’t attend in person. About 25 local residents went to the meeting, which resulted in a news story about their concerns over the cost of the local trash system.

Both News-Herald newsrooms used Scribus to lay out their print products for the Ben Franklin Project. Because they couldn’t use their paid content management system, they wrote all stories in Google docs and even created Gmail accounts so that they would be using a free service to exchange e-mails. They used Gimp and Photoshop.com, both of which are free, to crop and resize photos. Additionally, they each built a WordPress site, where they posted all of their digital content for the project. The advertising and sales departments also took part, using free tools to create local ads.

As part of project, the Willoughby newsroom used Facebook to find out what readers considered to be the most dangerous intersections in the area. Kessel, the paper’s managing editor, said the exercise helped them focus their reporting and prompted them to start using Twitter and Facebook more regularly. They’ve since looked into the intersections that readers mentioned and published a related story.

“A lot of us were scared because we hadn’t done this before,” Kessel said of the paper’s crowdsourcing efforts. “But what we found is that they really opened up to us.”

Most of the paper’s crowdsourcing efforts have worked, Kessel said, though some have not. The paper received no responses, for instance, when Kessel asked residents to provide photos of “quintessential Lake County moments.”

Project prompts papers to rethink how they’ll produce content on Web

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Paton said the Journal Register Company plans to initiate similar projects in the future that will help newsrooms put the digital first, print last philosophy into practice.

Using free tools to seek feedback and user-generated content from the community reminded Kessel that a cash-strapped newsroom doesn’t have to spend money to create content that the community will value.

“We’re basically in a fight for our lives in this industry,” Kessel said, “and we’re showing the world that you don’t have to spend millions and millions of dollars to do quality journalism.”

Morris said the project has helped the Perkasie News-Herald re-envision its digital strategy.

“One of the original questions from residents was, ‘So are you going to do this and give up after 30 days?’ But it’s almost impossible for us not to,” Morris said. “It’s been such an interesting experience to find out what residents are concerned about and then incorporate that into our coverage. We still have to get out there and cover stories, but I think all the reporters are thinking a lot differently now about what tools we can use to do that.”

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