Sunday, May 23, 2010

Ben Franklin and us

Journal Register Company, which owns The Mercury, made headlines last week in every media trade journal with the successful completion of The Ben Franklin Project.
The project was the printing of two newspapers – a daily outside Cleveland, Ohio, and a weekly in nearby Perkasie, Pa. – using only free online tools for gathering information and producing pages. The experiment emphasized the involvement of the community in determining and pushing forward story content.
The Ben Franklin Project began as a challenge from company CEO John Paton to these two papers and to every employee of Journal Register to rethink the way we produce newspapers and Web sites.
By meeting the challenge before the 30-day deadline, staffs of the Perkasie News-Herald and the Lake County News-Herald created a new brand of journalism. Their successes and their mistakes will be shared with other papers in the company, including The Mercury, and we are pretty certain it won’t be long before “Ben Franklin” will be showing up in Pottstown.
The project is part of a larger sea-change that has already begun at The Mercury -- a change that is necessary for our survival and critical to our success. In the past, Journal Register and The Mercury remained a few steps behind other media companies in investing in technology and embracing the online universe. But, under the company’s new leadership, the catch-up is happening at lightning speed (Ben Franklin pun intended).
In February, we announced that every reporter was now equipped with a FlipCam videorecorder. Instantly, writers became multimedia journalists, and the metamorphosis was under way. That one step jumpstarted our newsrooms to presenting the news with immediacy, putting words and action online straight from the source.
We no longer wait to the end of the day to report what’s happening and then gather reaction. Our goal is to start with you, our readers, instead of end with you. The Ben Franklin Project pushes that goal into reality. Journalists discover ways to have readers inform their reporting instead of the other way around. And, what we are learning – what we must learn – is how to utilize technology to make that happen.
The staffs in the Ben Franklin Project used tools to harness community engagement. What does that mean? Well, it means that technology can enable us to involve readers in asking the questions when we interview public officials or put them in the room when we report on meetings or press conferences. It means that as news is happening, readers are pointing us in the directions to make our coverage more relevant to their lives.
A simple example is a news tip left on our Web site several days ago asking us to find out more about the value and criteria for classroom aides in schools. Aides’ positions are being cut in one district after another in this school budget cycle, and parents and taxpayers would like to better understand the ramifications. With the tools being tested in experiments like Ben Franklin, good questions like that one can reach us as part of reporting, not as part of reaction.
Paton said in a recent interview with Poynter Online that involving users in providing content “is not a replacement for journalists; it’s a new pipeline for information that journalists have to use.”
The key is “have to.”
In a business environment changing as rapidly as ours, we have to adapt and experiment and learn new methods and better ways of involving our readers in the process.
A little more than a year ago, I wrote a column about the demise of a newspaper, and I said that telling your stories is our privilege, and that will not change. Ironically, the path that will keep us alive is seen as the one that not only tells your stories but involves you in shaping them.
Another irony is that Ben Franklin as a journalist of colonial times contributed to a publication, “American Mercury,” and turned it inside out to make it better.
History may be repeating itself.

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