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The Journal Register Co.'s Benjamin Franklin allegedly ushers in a new level of transparency and reader involvement into the chain's newspapers. It pushes for a "digital first, print last" approach to the news. (Credit: The Benjamin Franklin Project blog)

To mark Independence Day, all Journal Register newspapers will try out the Benjamin Franklin Project on July 4.  The Journal Register Company has 19 daily newspapers in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Connecticut, Ohio, New Jersey and New York.

The “digital first, print last” directive, has the newspapers using “only free tools found on the Internet” to produce the newspaper in print and online.  It also is alleged to introduce both a new level of transparency and a new level of requests for reader involvement.   The project asks readers to help generate story ideas, provide source information, and fact check published stories.

But is it asking too much of Journal Register readers? Is the initiative asking readers to do the job its own paid employees are supposed to?

The Benjamin Franklin Project’s Web site noted the traditional journalism model has journalists choosing stories and reporting stories.  But, the project puts those tasks on the readers:

“Adhering to Journal Register’s digital first mission, the Ben Franklin Project will empower the audience – through use of free web-based tools (the list of which is still being finalized) – to determine on what stories our reporting and editing staff should be focusing their efforts.”

The project wrote “Yes, the reporters will still report and the editors will still edit.”  But the project seeks to make every aspect of reporting stories transparent.  “Reporters will document their newsgathering online thus providing the audience opportunity to question, guide and join the process.”

The Journal Register Co. has already tried out the Ben Franklin Project at two of their newspapers.  Jon Paton, Journal Register CEO, wrote on his blog May 20 that on April 21 the project was launched at Journal Register’s Ohio daily News-Herald and Pennsylvania weekly paper Perkasie News-Herald.

Jon Cooper, Journal Register vice president, wrote May 20 about the success of staffers changing to free software in 29 days.  Some of the newspapers’ front pages include Perkasie News-Herald’s May 19-May 25 edition and News-Herald’s May 20 edition.

New York newspaper The Saratogian announced May 30 in an editorial it would be undertaking the Benjamin Franklin Project as well.

“Now you can serve as advisers, sources and participants with the click of a button,” the newspaper wrote.  That editorial said that readers would be involved in reporting by giving suggestions and story ideas, making reporting “a collaborative effort.”

Connecticut newspaper The Middletown Press wrote May 31 that it thinks its “readers should decide what is news” and announced to its readers its participation in the Ben Franklin Project.

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Some commenters anticipating the new format wrote that the newspaper should implement a better commenting system. Others wrote critically of the proposed program, saying it’s “cheaper than hiring good reporters” or asking “What time do you want us to all come down to run the presses and load the trucks?”

Another element to the Benjamin Franklin Project is reader fact checking.

The Middletown Press announced to its readers in a June 1 article that its “formal ‘fact checking’ program” will “ask readers, sources and the community at-large to correct inaccuracies, elaborate or provide context to the facts that are presented in stories appearing in The Middletown Press or at www.middletownpress.com.”

Middletown Press editor Viktoria Sundqvist wrote in an e-mail to StinkyJournalism that the newspaper hopes the program will “involve readers in a way never before seen at our newspaper.”  Sundqvist noted that the weekly West Hartford News and the daily Register Citizen are also implementing the reader fact check.

Readers can submit comments on a form on the newspaper’s Web site’s home page and let the newspaper know of its errors.

The newspaper wrote that it believes “the collective knowledge and voice of the ‘crowd’ — our readers, our community — is more powerful, more accurate and more relevant than anything a newspaper reporter or editor can produce in isolation.”

But commenters didn’t seem entirely excited about the new program.   Readers wrote in the comments that “we shouldn’t have to do your job. You’re supposed to be the professionals” and for the newspaper to “do your own fact checking.”  One asked if readers would be getting paid to do the newspaper’s work.

And another wrote that “If I understand this correctly, we will get you your stories, check the facts and, either write them for you, or check your grammar and the facts once again after you have written them. You no longer actually print the paper, and you have a bunch of kids delivering it, so, if you would, please tell me exactly what it is that you are going to do?”

To that, Sundqvist wrote the newspaper believes the help of readers will make Middletown Press better because its staff “cannot be everywhere at once.” Through the initiatives, readers are given more of a voice to keep the newspaper in check.

“We are not asking readers to do the work that we get paid to do. But in order for The Middletown Press to be relevant to its readers, we need to write about what readers want to read. We are therefore looking for the readers to become more involved in all the processes here at our newspaper.”

iMediaEthics has contacted Jon Paton, Journal Register CEO, and will update with any response.

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Ben Franklin Project Pushes for More Transparency and Reader Involvement in 19 Daily Newspapers

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