With our upcoming Techdirt Saves* Journalism event to be held June 16th at Google’s offices, we’ve been looking deeper and deeper into stories of newspapers doing interesting things. One interesting one to follow is the Journal Register, who got a new CEO, John Paton, at the beginning of the year, and he’s trying to shake things up. In April, he announced the Ben Franklin Project, as an attempt to get the company to stop thinking about the digital side of the business as being an afterthought to the print side, and to get the company more focused on being “digital first, print last.” The Ben Franklin project involved getting various Journal Register newspapers to use entirely open online tools to really actively involve the community in the process of creating a new story. It was about recognizing that more and more people view themselves as being a part of the news process, not just consumers of the news. It doesn’t mean getting rid of reporters or editors. They still do what they do. It just means involving the wider community more in the whole process — and using free and open web tools to do so.
The initial results were pretty impressive, and all put together very quickly.
But Paton seems to already be pushing the bar further. Picking up on Google’s “20% time” concept, Paton is setting up something he calls “idealab”, where any Journal Register employee (full- or part-time) can apply to be one of 15 members of this “lab,” where they’ll be given 10 hours a week, as well as some modern tech tools, and then told to “experiment with these tools and report back on how we can change our business for the better.” Even more interesting, as the Nieman Lab report above notes, Paton asked people to apply via comments on his blog. You could also apply by email, but many did apply on the blog, and there are lots of interesting ideas.
The program is interesting, though, I’m not sure the initial setup goes far enough. Initially, it’s giving each participant an iPhone, an iPad and a netbook as “the tools” to experiment with. I wonder if the company might find more interesting (and useful) results if it didn’t even set those particular parameters (or set a budget). While I can definitely understand the value of experimenting with the currently hot and popular technologies out there, I also wonder if something more interesting might come from even greater freedom. Perhaps that’s the next step.
We’ve already got a great and diverse group of participants, so it should be a fun evening full of interesting ideas and discussion.