Celebrating Free-dom: The Journal Register Company’s Ben Franklin Project

July 4, 2010

Full disclosure: I reported for Journal Register Company newspaper the Daily Freeman from June 2004 to October 2005.

Ben Franklin portraitAt first glance, today’s Web and print editions for the Journal Register Company‘s 18 daily newspapers might not appear terribly different from any other day’s. That was part of the point of the rapidly-reinventing-itself chain’s bold Ben Franklin Project. JRC wanted to prove that free does not necessarily mean cheap, that free or near-free online tools can achieve the same production values as pricey proprietary software.

Take a closer look at the papers’ digital and print Ben Franklin Project editions, published on Independence Day to signify the company’s independence from proprietary systems, and you’ll notice they are different.

You’ll notice stories suggested and edited by audience members. You’ll notice crowdsourced solutions to community challenges. You’ll notice videos putting a fresh human face on persistent issues like immigration and unemployment. You’ll notice interactive maps pinpointing user-identified problems like risky roadways.

This was the Ben Franklin Project’s other, ultimately larger point: That free tools can improve both journalists’ coverage and their relationship with their audience by making the news process more participatory.

Screengrabs of YouTube video, Facebook page, home page and Twitter stream for various JRC newspapers.

That the papers — some with circulations as small as 6,000 — even attempted this ambitious project is groundbreaking for their famously slow-to-adapt industry. That they pulled it off is a remarkable feat. The executive behind this and other innovations at JRC — including citizen journalism labs and in-house testing of the latest tech tools — was rightfully celebratory in a blog post to employees this morning, exclaiming, “Take a bow. You did it.” CEO John Paton also rightfully recognized that this is only the beginning.

The success or failure of an initiative characterized — by organizers and observers — as revolutionary can be judged only over the long-term. Merely sustaining the type of work showcased today will require more hard work, especially as the novelty — for employees and audience members — wears off. Building up the Ben Franklin Project into what the journalism history books (history tablets?) would consider a revolution will require a lot more hard work.

  • It will require a firm technical and strategic grasp of the tools used to produce today’s editions. Employees, who had just over a month to learn many of the free tools they used, are by their own admission still getting the hang of pagination program Scribus. Microblogging service Twitter, meanwhile, is of greatest value to news organizations when they use it to converse with audience members and sources (two-way/pull/new-media thinking), yet many JRC papers use their Twitter feeds only to push out links to their stories (one-way/push/old-media thinking).
  • It will require abandoning these tools at the drop of a hat and learning new ones as better alternatives come along.
  • It will require engaging audience members — meeting them on the platforms they’re already using or educating them about the platforms they should be using — to the point they don’t have to be persuaded to participate.
  • It will require not letting the new way of doing things disrupt what was right about the old way. As empowering as they are, interactive tools are a complement to thorough, old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting, not a replacement for it.
  • More than anything, it will require a bottom-up embrace of the digital-first, innovation culture Paton is evangelizing. No print-versus-Web, us-versus-them, that’s-not-part-of-my job whining.

Since a lot of people might have been too busy eating hot dogs/watching others eat (way too many) hot dogs, launching fireworks/watching others launch fireworks to follow JRC’s Ben Franklin Project coverage, here’s a sampling of what the 18 papers produced:

Screengrab of The Mercury road rage map

Screengrab of Oneida Dispatch video featuring JRC Director of Digital Content Jonathan Cooper.

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7 Responses to “Celebrating Free-dom: The Journal Register Company’s Ben Franklin Project”


  1. Steve,
    Thank you for taking the time to examine the full scope of this project. From my vantage point as a former JRC editor and news director, and now publisher of a small daily, this single project did more to change the culture of this company from the bottom up than years of training workshops, policy statements and focus groups could have.
    Matt DeRienzo
    Publisher, The Register Citizen


  2. Here is a link to the Morning Sun’s Ben Franklin site:

    http://ple.jrcbenfranklin.com/


  3. […] the country tested their independence from the old print model of putting out a paper. Here is an evaluation of the project results from Steve Early’s blog, and are some videos from the Register Citizen, which sent reporters […]


  4. […] it is these folks got it done. Like newspaper chain the Journal Register Company’s recent Ben Franklin Project, it’s a testament to the Web and it’s organizing power and its affordable, accessible […]


  5. […] Celebrating Free-dom: The Journal Register Co.’s Ben Franklin Project, by Steve Earley, blog post (2010) […]


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