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Barbara Lombardo writes about journalisml, local news and anything else that strikes her fancy. She is executive editor of The Saratogian, The Record and the Community News, sister papers in the Digital First Media family. Follow her on Twitter @Barb_Lombardo.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Ben Franklin Day at The Saratogian: A ‘Declaration of Independence’ from newsroom software

The Sunday, July 4 edition of The Saratogian should look the same as always — if all went according to plan.
But it wasn't put together in the usual way.
Most of the news and photographs on the pages, and the layout of those pages themselves, were prepared for publication without using the usual newsroom software for writing, editing, toning, cropping and paginating.
Instead, all this work was done using free software available to anyone on the Internet. And yes, it was hard work. The proprietary software is designed to be efficient, reliable and relative fast for the task of producing a daily newspaper. The free substitutes, not so much.

So why did we do it? Crazy? Maybe. Tired? Definitely. Proud? You bet.
The free software experiment is part of the Ben Franklin Project of the Journal Register Company, which owns The Saratogian, 17 other dailies and a slew of weeklies and has been expanding its online presence with a content-driven, digital-first mentality that reflects where the world of communication is today and where it’s headed.
Part of the Ben Franklin Project is to push us newsies into active engagement with the public as a matter of course in planning, developing and reporting news. The buzzword is crowdsourcing. While it’s not a new concept, the Internet and social media in particular eliminate any excuses about reaching people and making citizens part of the process of shaping their news. That’s the ongoing part of the Ben Franklin Project, which recognizes that our No. 1 product is news content, whether you’re in print or online.
The Ben Franklin Project’s one-shot deal is the preparation of all daily newspapers in the Journal Register Company using free software for publication on the Fourth of July, a symbolic declaration of independence from proprietary software. Last month, a weekly and a daily in the company did it successfully, so the bar was raised for today. It’s a bit of a publicity stunt within the journalism industry, and it’s working. The industry has taken note of remarkable strides in attitudes and practices of the Journal Register Company spearheaded by John Paton, the CEO who has taken the company out of bankruptcy and is leading it into a digital-first world.
The Ben Franklin Project also demonstrates that the technology to publish is out there for anyone to use.
But between us, producing today’s paper wasn’t easy for the newsroom. News Editor Paul Tackett has been working days and nights, on top of his usual job, to set up most of today’s pages in a layout program called Scribus. In the community, Tackett may be an anonymous editor, but you know him through his compelling page designs.
For today’s paper, Tackett has duplicated the familiar components of The Saratogian from scratch, with the goal being that you won’t know the difference between the look of today’s paper and tomorrow’s. Likewise, photographers Erica Miller and Ed Burke have used free software instead of Photoshop for their pictures, and the reporters have filed their stories in Googled Docs instead of Microsoft Word. Online Editor Steve Shoemaker is posting video and stories to a free website, in addition to the regular site at saratogian.com.
It’s been a team effort involving other departments of The Saratogian as well as the newsroom.
We in the news industry take great pride in publishing, no matter what the circumstances – and news companies have faced natural disasters much more challenging than anything John Paton or Ben Franklin could throw our way.
Just wanted to share with you the story behind today’s newspaper, to publicly commend The Saratogian team, and, as always, to invite your comments.

Barbara Lombardo is managing editor of The Saratogian. E-mail her at blombardo@journalregister.com or comment on her blog, Fresh Ink, at www.saratogian.com.

5 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is interesting, not many people are prepared to try to use new things like this, thank you. That being said I would be interested in knowing a few things abut your experiences, the projects you used may also be intrested in helpfull feadback.

How much of the time was taken up having to relearn things and remake old content for the new software, and how much was due to clunky interfaces?
Where there any specific things that you could not do that you felt that you should be able to?
Was there any bit that would have been easer than using your old software, had you been used to it?
Did you ask for any community help, and if you did how did they respond, I have found the forums of major projects good for advice in the past?
Finally do you have any hints for others trying to put together a similar project using open source software like this?

PS I would have used open office's word processor rather than google docs, it is much more of a full word processor, not a toy (K-office and Abby word are also good).

July 4, 2010 at 2:40 PM 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ms. Lombardo,

Congratulations on the success of your project to produce the July 4th edition of The Saratogian and its sister papers without proprietary software. I know nothing of your newspapers or the Ben Franklin Project mentioned in your article. It was brought to my attention by a post in the technology web site Slashdot. So I don't have much of an idea of how much effort you put into it, though it seems from your description that it was quite a lot. Again, congratulations to all of you.

Besides congratulating you, I want to encourage you to make use of free software not just a one-time project. I notice your statement that using the free software was not as easy as using the proprietary software that you usually use. I am sure you are correct, but I am also sure that it does not have to remain so.

Since you are aware of free software to some degree, you may already understand the point I want to make. I am mentioning it only on the chance that you have not picked up on it: One of the main points of free software is that its users can improve it, and also benefit from the improvements all of the other users make to it. A well-run free software project makes it fairly easy for a user of the software to coordinate changes with the other people who are working on improving the software, and to include those improvements in future versions of the software that are available to everyone.

I like to compare that approach with the way science advances. Every researcher in the world has available all the results of previous research, and when he or she makes an advance in the field, he or she publishes it as soon as possible for everyone else to benefit from. Everyone agrees that this is the best way to advance science: open collaboration.

The same is true of free software. A publishing organization such as yours could greatly reduce its software licensing costs by switching to free software. At the moment, the free software is not as capable as the proprietary software is, which makes the free software not as easy and efficient to use. But if many publishing organizations join in the community of users of the free software necessary to run your operation, and each develops and contributes a modest stream of improvements to the free software, that free software will improve in quality rapidly, and could match or surpass the quality of the proprietary software after a few years.

There certainly is some cost to participating in improving the software, both in the pay of the programmers that you hire to do the work, and in the burden of working with software that, at the beginning, is not as capable as the proprietary software you could be using. But the savings from not paying the proprietary licensing fees would at least partially pay for a small programming group, and as the capability of the free software improves, the other costs will drop to nothing. And don't forget one other benefit the free software brings: If there is a feature you want, or a bug that is causing you headaches, you can have your programmers make the enhancement or fix for you right away, something no proprietary software permits.

I think building a community of newspapers that creates outstanding free software for the publishing business is an outcome that Ben Franklin would look on with great pride. I hope you and your organization plan to take steps to make that happen. It might not be in your area of responsibility to undertake such a project for your organization, but if not, please pass on this suggestion to whoever in your organization would be appropriate.

Keith Dick

July 4, 2010 at 7:30 PM 
Blogger Robert Dene said...

I think you guys have done an amazing job...

July 5, 2010 at 12:26 AM 
Blogger Fresh Ink said...

Thank you for your thoughtful and encouraging comments posted July 4 and 5 about the Ben Franklin experiment.
As for the questions posed by anonymous, the most tedious aspect was learning how to use the Scribus layout software, setting up the templates and creating styles to match the look of our publication, and then painstakingly adjusting the copy -- the hyphenations had to be inserted by hand! Most of that work was done by News Editor Paul Tackett.

July 7, 2010 at 11:04 PM 
Blogger Horatio Alger said...

Barb,

This is what we call a test balloon. And an interesting one at that. The good news is, it sounds like you'll have another year to use your familiar proprietary software. But knowing JRC, that's just about all you'll have.

Yet, running newspapers off freeware is actually an ingenious cost-savings measure the parent company is evidently considering. Now if they'd only re-invest that savings back into their product, there might just be a future for American journalism.

Cheers,
Horatio

July 10, 2010 at 5:05 AM 

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