Does journalism need another open-source CMS?

I have to say that I’m a bit baffled by a $975,000 grant from the Knight Foundation to the Bay Citizen and the Texas Tribune, two very well funded non-profit news organisations in the US. The goal is to create a nimble open-source content management system. I guess WordPress or Drupal, just to name two open-source content management systems, didn’t fit the bill. PaidContent is reporting that news start-ups expressed this need during meetings last year at SXSW Interactive. PaidContent said:

  • Manage an integrated library of text, video and audio files;
  • Maximize search engine optimization by improving the way articles are linked, aggregated and tagged;
  • Integrate sites with social networks like Facebook and Twitter as well as bloggers;
  • Provide membership tools and integration with ad networks to help with new revenue streams.

I wonder if those news start-ups have heard of OpenPublish. The platform is a distribution of Drupal with Thomson-Reuters’ Calais semantic technology added to help deliver better related content to users. It’s got some nice monetisation features. The Nation and PBS Newshour use it. That’s just one open-source option. How does this not tick the boxes above?

I also know from my own work with news organisations, it’s highly likely that these non-profits will create a platform that is optimised for their own needs but not generally applicable. This is a larger problem with news organisations. All but the largest news orgs could use open-source CMSes and get 90% of what they need with little modification. However, a lot of news editors are obsessed with differentiating on aspects of the CMS that deliver little efficiency to their journalists and little or no benefit to their audiences. IT managers are more than happy to deliver these vanity features because it can justify a bit of empire building.

I do worry that this money will go into reinventing the wheel and deliver little marginal benefit to these start-ups and to the larger news eco-system. Wouldn’t this money be better spent supporting existing open-source projects and adapting them to journalism rather than creating another platform?

7 thoughts on “Does journalism need another open-source CMS?

  1. Yes they could write a lot of superb WordPress plug-ins with $975,000. Maybe start by beefing up the WordPress media/image library tool to cope with larger sets and add custom fields for credits etc.

  2. You make a good point, the reason they choose not to customize existing CMS’s for their uses may very well be ego, or business, or both. Since they have already chosen to go open source, we can presume the platform they develop will be available for community use. As open source systems provide opportunities for income generation through charging for customization services, perhaps they may have strategy to ‘milk that cow’. That said, would make more sense to just customize OpenPublish, its quite robust… just my 2-cents.

  3. I would be interested to see the decision making process that KRF follow. Such an outcome is generally either the result of pure ignorance on behalf of the funders, or the result of the selection process manipulation/pressures/corruption, or both. KRF has been funding projects with dubious rationale all along. Just another lobby.

  4. Yeah Carl, my point exactly. I’ll take a look around and try to see more about thinking behind this, but I’m not entirely clear on how building another CMS is going to address the business model problems facing journalism, especially local journalism. I mean Morris Digital, a small and medium market newspaper publisher, uses Drupal, and Steve Yelvington is a huge Drupal advocate.

    I guess the key question is: Are the needs of news organisations so unique that they aren’t being addressed by the current crop of open-source projects and adaptations of those projects for publishing? Will this new CMS really solve the business problems? Is there a more direct way to solve these business problems than building another CMS?

    Jacqueline, yeah, immediately after I wrote the post, I thought that maybe this is a new revenue stream strategy for Bay Citizen and the Texas Tribune. However, I don’t see see how that really solves the problems for a broader range of news start-ups.

    Most of this is probably down to the simple fact that I never have met a developer who didn’t think he or she could make a better CMS. Sysadmins run CMSes; developers always want to build them. It’s not a criticism of developers, but I’d rather developers build something unique on a current platform than create yet another content platform.

  5. My sense is that there’s a degree of hidden or unconscious snobbery in these sort of decisions – an underlying assumption that any CMS that has its roots in blogging or non “big corporate” publishing just won’t be up to the task: publishers are special and need special tools.

  6. Thanks Adam, I was asked on Twitter what news organisations are using these open-source content management systems. Let me list them. AllThingsD by the Wall Street Journal runs on WordPress. CNN runs its blogs on Al Jazeera runs its blogs on Drupal. The NYTimes runs its blogs on WordPress and is an investor in WordPress. Reuters runs its blogs on WordPress.

    WordPress 3.0 is fast becoming a full-blown CMS, and Drupal has always been a powerful CMS with community features built in.

    The thing that just baffles me is why this is coming from the non-profit, news start-up folks. I would expect this from the incumbents, not the people who are supposed to be the plucky upstarts.

  7. I can’t help point out that this is at least the third open source CMS the Knight Foundation has funded, and the prior two have had serious issues:

    – The Populous Project was intended to be a solution for student newsrooms. To my knowledge, no completed version has ever been released.

    Radio: Engage was seriously overdue, doesn’t appear to be under active development and hasn’t made a serious impact.

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