The Journal Register Company (JRC) owns newspapers around the United States, and like many print media companies is looking to adapt its business and news-gathering models for the Internet era. On July 4th, 18 of JRC's papers published print and online editions using a "free" and "open" workflow, in homage to the Independence Day holiday. Dubbed the Ben Franklin Project, the effort combined crowdsourcing, interactive news gathering, and free software.
JRC's Vice President of Content Jon Cooper provided an overview
of the processes used by the various papers, including letting citizens
suggest story ideas and improvements, posting story budgets, incorporating
interactive online content, and using social media tools to gather news,
not just to publicize it. That dimension focused mostly on engaging the
local community with the newsroom staff, in a sense opening the process of
producing the news. Of more interest to LWN readers, perhaps, was the
decision to only use a free toolchain to produce the final product.
Slashdot picked up a blog post from one of the papers, The Saratogian, which outlined the use of the desktop publishing tool Scribus, the SeaShore image editor (a Mac OS X raster editor based originally on GIMP code), WordPress, and Google Docs. The story submitter and several commenters seemed to come away from the post with the impression that the newspaper found the software not-ready-for-prime-time, latching on to a quote four paragraphs in that said: "The proprietary software is designed to be efficient, reliable and relatively fast for the task of producing a daily newspaper. The free substitutes, not so much."
Scribus and other free software applications
When you look at the reports of all of the participating papers and JRC itself, however, it is clear that the above comment is not to be taken too seriously. All eighteen participating papers published their Scribus-built editions on time, and with positive results.
To be sure, a few encountered trouble along the way. The Delaware
County Times live-blogged
page layout, noting at one point that the program was crashing whenever the
editor attempted to import a particular image, and mentioning the time
involved in finding specific fonts, but the staff ultimately finished the
issue. The Saratogian noted that the most time-consuming process
was reproducing the paper's page templates in Scribus. But the New
Haven Register, Oneida
Dispatch, the Daily Local News, the other papers, and JRC management reported that the experiment was a success.
The papers spent a month prior to Ben Franklin Day training
staff on Scribus, both with the official documentation and with third-party
Editor Jack Kramer of the New Haven Register said that the staff
adapted to Scribus "pretty quickly," but that, although the
documentation was important, what proved more important were the in-house
training and support groups that the paper formed, which worked together and "perfected the program usage."
Karl Sickafus of the Daily Local called Scribus "arguably, the single most valuable find of the Ben Franklin project" and wrote that his staff even went so far as to write custom scripts to import content from the paper's database directly into Scribus. He then speculated that such a system could easily replace the proprietary ad tracking, advertising, and editorial systems JRC uses today.
Kramer and several of the other editors mentioned using both GIMP and
SeaShore for image editing, though Kramer noted that his photo editor was
not "totally satisfied" with SeaShore. All of the
participating papers published their content to a mirror site running
Wordpress in addition to their regular web site. In an interesting
footnote, the Slashdot debate veered into an argument over the oft-cited
issue that the name "The Gimp" (though the project uses "GIMP" these days) is off-putting or offensive, and drives potential users away without even trying it. When asked whether anyone at the New Haven Register was bothered by the name, Kramer replied simply "not at all."
Google Docs and other missing pieces
Some of the papers (such as The Morning Sun) used Open Office for story writing, but Google Docs was widespread. Predictably, in the Slashdot story and in several of the comment threads on the individual newspaper sites, free software advocates took issue with the decision to use Google Docs in a "free software" experiment, noting accurately that the tool is not open source or free software.
Indeed, several of the papers blur the line between "free to use" and "software freedom," a mistake certainly not limited to this particular field. An anonymous New Haven Register staffer provided more background on that decision in a comment on the paper's blog, saying "We ordinarily write our stories in a content-management system that costs money for us to use, and its purpose is to manage content for the print edition only — not our website."
Because it was used to replace a content management system (CMS),
presumably the critical feature of Google Docs was collaborative editing in
this case, so the lack of it in the other open source tools led to Google Docs adoption. That includes WordPress, which the papers used to publish their online editions. Although multi-user editing is possible in WordPress, the newsrooms evidently found it lacking. The newsroom-oriented CMS Campsite may simply have been overlooked.
It is also interesting to note what other free-to-use proprietary applications were selected; this is real-world feedback that the open source community should take note of. Most of the papers used existing social networks like Facebook and Twitter to solicit feedback from the local community. Almost all used video, but chose proprietary video editing and hosting tools. Finally, though the papers used SeaShore to edit photographs, it appears that none used a free raw conversion tool — perhaps because, as SeaShore indicates, the photo staff is equipped with Mac OS X, for which the free raw converters do not provide regular builds.
News for tomorrow
Having read all of the available accounts of open source's performance on Ben Franklin Day (some papers have yet to publish results online), Scribus and the other applications seem to have performed well. What happens next is the challenge. Sickafus observed:
We can literally do EVERYTHING we do using nothing but freeware. We just proved that. But, what are we going to do with than newly generated energy? Are we going to go back to doing the "things we do" the same way we are accustomed to, while reminiscing of the long forgotten Ben Franklin project? That would make absolutely no sense what so ever.
He advocates devoting financial resources that would be spent on proprietary content management and ad systems instead to adapting open source solutions. Reporter Ron Nurwisah recommends essentially the same thing, looking at the cost of dozens of licenses for Adobe products. Neither position would surprise long-time free software advocates; still, it is refreshing to witness an industry realize the potential of open source software.
JRC has kept its Ben Franklin Project
WordPress site active since July 4th, posting discussions on where the
company needs to go next, and exploring other open source applications. In
addition, Cooper recently wrote to the Scribus mailing list to
initiate a dialog with the development team about what the papers had
There is still no official announcement from any of the papers about the
permanent addition of open source to their newsrooms. Based on
the results so far, though, an announcement like that may not be all that
[ Our thanks to Jay R. Ashworth for pointing us in the direction of this
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