America’s Journal Register, publisher of 18 dailies, needed to update its editorial systems. So, it asked : Why should we have to pay the prices set by proprietary vendors? But was that a smart question . . .
Who: The Journal Register Company has moved to free software only to produce its newspapers. This audacious move was dubbed the Benjamin Franklin project and finished on America’s Independence Day in 2010. The company now uses software freely available on the internet for production. Free software is also used to build a bridge with readers and encourage their input on story selection.
Why: The project was in response to the what the company has described as needing to update aging, outdated editorial systems.
Problem: The company asked itself: Why should we have to pay the prices set by proprietary vendors?
Management discussions around these issues, and the growing availability of free software online, led to a cultural shift and a change in attitudes to working with and developing software in-house. Much of the focus for the project was around a program called Scribus, an application that is used to lay-out a newspaper.
Outcome 1: Regular training sessions helped staff adjust to new software. Conversations, webinars, site visits all helped educate newsroom staff on how to use Scribus, as well as other programs.
Staff began not only to use the software but start to improve it by implementing programming changes. This is the benefit of ‘open-source’ software, where the underlying code can be edited by anyone. Communities of software developers constantly exchange upgrades and, theoretically you never have to wait for a new release.
Challenge: “You’ve got to remember that with proprietary software you get backup,” said one manager at the Journal Register. “If it’s free, and open source, and it crashes before we went to press, then you do not have the security of the vendor companies being able to help you out.”
Outcome 2: Another aspect to the project was seeking reader feedback on what issues the newspapers should cover. They used social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, as well as local radio, email, and their letters page, to ask readers what stories they wanted covered, and for feedback on story ideas from the editorial team.
Part of the process was teaching “more veteran” journalists how to use social media.
Due to reader feedback, their most successful editorial campaign was focused on dangerous intersections.
What surprised the editorial team was that some favourite ideas were dismissed by the community. One, which had been the editorial team’s dream story for a while, was a 24-hour snapshot of the local county, looking at the moments that defined the community. Readers did not share the journalists’ enthusiasm.
Future: The Journal Register Company plans to continue exploring free software and ‘crowd sourcing’ stories.
They have developed what they’ve called ‘Ben Franklin in a box’, so other news organisations can take part in what we’ve done.
Guide to free software for newspapers:
A complete list, with links, to each tool the Ben Franklin project investigated is available online here: http://jrcbenfranklinproject.wordpress.com/tools/
Google Docs, Open Office – Used for admin, ad sales, and writing copy.
Aviary, GIMP – Image and vector editors, used for photo and colour correction, ad production
YouTube, Vimeo, Blip.TV – Video hosts
Audacity – Audio editing
Scribus – Pagination, lay-outs
BannerSnack, InkScape – Ad production
CutePDF, GhostScript – PDF production
DimDim, Skype – Online video conferencing, training
ShareThis, Dropbox, Mediafire – File transfer, content sharing
WordPress, Drupal – Content management software
ResourceSpace – Asset management software (ie. photo, video, database)
Recommendation: This is an extraordinary example of the power of free software. To use it for mission-critical needs, such as designing a newspaper with a deadline looming, is not for the faint-hearted.
Smaller publishers, especially those unable to invest in packaged applications from suppliers such as Atex, CCI and DTI, might find inspiration in the number of free alternatives for a publishing system. Many will be happy to run with the fairly standard structure that relies on MS Word-Adobe to get the job done with a minimum of fuss.
For larger publishers, this is not recommended without having significant internal IT resources on call, plus a bullet-proof strategy for why the risk would be worthwhile.
With the evolution of publishing moving so quickly, and the digital platform becoming many platforms with varying publishing quirks, larger publishers are better served by mainstream suppliers who can demonstrate the capacity to move quickly and keep pace with new consumer-based technologies that, for now, are being driven by Apple, Google (Android) and to a lesser extent Microsoft.