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?

Two projects to watch: Ben Franklin Project and's Near You zip code news filter's Near You zip code-based news filter

At 428 am in Washington DC a new news site,, launched, and it is definitely one worth watching. Why? They have assembled an all-star staff, brimming with passion. The general manager for the project is Jim Brady, the former executive editor and vice president of Washington Post Newsweek interactive. Steve Buttry, the site’s head of community engagement, has a long history in traditional journalism, training and innovation.  (For any journalist struggling to come to terms with the unrequited love you feel for the business, read this post by Mimi Johnson, Steve’s wife, as he left the newspaper business to go all digital at TBD.) They have some great staff who I have ‘met’ via Twitter including networked journalists Daniel Victor and Jeff Sonderman.

When he was hired, Jeff described his job as a community host as this:

developing ways to work with bloggers and users to generate, share and discuss content.

He described as this:

Our goal is to build an online news site for the DC metro area, and do it taking full advantage of the how the web works — with partnership not competition, users not readers, conversation not dictation, linking not duplicating.

If you look on Twitter this morning, Jeff and Steve are very busy on their first full day as hosts for the new news service.

Digitally native at launch

The site is clean and clear, easy to navigate with a lot of excellent touches. launched with an Android app and are awaiting approval for their iPhone application. They zip (post) code news filter to find out content not only from TBD but also from bloggers in the area is excellent. I lived in Washington from 1998 until 2005 as the Washington correspondent of I know the city well. I typed in my old home zip code, 20010, and got news about Mount Pleasant including from a blog called The 42 Bus, which was the bus that I used to take to work everyday. Their live traffic information is template for how city sites should add value for such bread and butter news. You can quickly pull up a map showing traffic choke points in the area. They even have a tool to plot your best travel route. The traffic tools are pulled from existing services, but the value is in the package.

They had a launch event last week, and they explained their networked journalism strategy. Steve Myers at the Poynter journalism institute said half of the links at would point to external sources, much higher than at most sites. said that At launch, 127 local bloggers had joined their network. Steve Myers had this quote from Steve Buttry about their linking strategy:

“If we’re competing on the same story, we’ll do our story and we’ll link to yours,” said Steve Buttry, director of community engagement for the site. If another source owns a big story, “we’ll play you at the top of the home page and we’ll cover something else with our staff resources.”

Wow. Personally, I think that this is smart. With resources declining at most news organisations, they have to be much more strategic about how they use their staff. They need to focus on what value that they add. Jeff Jarvis says: “Cover what you do best and link to the rest“, and this is one of the highest profile tests of that strategy.

Ken Doctor, brilliant news industry analyst at Newsonomics, has 10 reasons to watch Harvard’s Nieman Lab for journalism has another six reasons why they are watching the launch. Of Ken’s list, I’ll highlight two. Bucking the trend for many new high-profile news projects in the US, this is a for-profit business. Ken’s seventh point is huge:

7) It’s got a big established sales force to get it going. Both TV stations salespeople with accounts — and relationships. So TBD is an extension of that sales activity, not a start-up ad sell, which bedevils many other  start-ups.

The other thing that has going for it is that it has the commitment of someone who already has seen some success with new models, Robert Allbritton. A few years ago, he launched, bringing in two high profile veterans from the Washington Post to compete not only with their newspaper but also specialist political outlets like Roll Call. Politico has managed to create a successful print-web product, “not profitable every quarter but says it’s turning a profit for any given six months,” Allbritton told What is more important though is his commitment to his ventures. He’s got the money and commitment to support projects past the short term.

“The first year of Politico was pretty ugly in terms of revenue,” he admitted. “You’ve got to have some staying power for these things to work.”

The Ben Franklin Project

The other project that I’m watching is John Paton’s Ben Franklin Project at the Journal Register Company. What is it?

The Journal Register Company’s Ben Franklin Project is an opportunity to re-imagine the newsgathering process with the focus on Digital First and Print Last. Using only free tools found on the Internet, the project will – from assigning to editing- create, publish and distribute news content on both the web and in print.

Succinctly, this company is looking to disrupt its own business. Instead of attacking costs by cutting more staff, they are looking to cut costs by eliminating the price of their own production using free tools. It’s not something that every organisation could do, but with 18 daily newspapers and 150 non-daily local publications, it shows the ambition of their project. This is not a tiny organisation.

In practice, the organisation set the goal for all 18 of its newspapers to publish online and in print using free online and free open-source tools, such as the Scribus desktop publishing application. They are also pursuing the same kind of community engagement, networked journalism strategy that is at the heart of

On 4 July, 2010, Independence Day in the US, they published their 18 daily newspapers and websites only using free tools and crowdsourced journalism. Jon Cooper, Vice President of Content, Journal Register Company wrote:

Today — July 4, 2010 — marks not only Journal Register Company’s independence from the costly proprietary systems that have long restricted newspapers and news companies alike. Today also marks the start of a revolution. Today marks the beginning of a new path for media companies whose employees are willing to shape their own future.

This is just part of Paton’s turnaround strategy for the Journal Register Company. However, in 2010, which is proving to be another tough year for the US economy (especially in some of the areas the company covers), Paton just announced that the company is 15% ahead of its revenue goals. He said:

Our goal is to pay out an extra week’s pay this year to all employees for hitting our annual target of $40 Million.

That is an amazing investment in journalists and an incentive for them to embrace the disruptive change he is advocating, but it’s so heartening to see journalists engaged and benefitting from change in the industry.

With all the talk about innovation in journalism, it is rare to see projects launch with such clear ambitions. After a lot of talk in the industry, we’ll now see what is possible.

Ushahidi and Swift River: Crowdsourcing innovations from Africa

For all the promise of user-generated content and contributions, one of the biggest challenges for journalism organisations is that such projects can quickly become victims of their own success. As contributions increase, there comes a point when you simply can’t evaluate or verify them all.

One of the most interesting projects in 2008 in terms of crowdsourcing was Ushahidi. Meaning “testimony” in Swahili, the platform was first developed to help citizen journalists in Kenya gather reports of violence in the wake of the contested election of late 2007. Out of that first project, it’s now been used to crowdsource information, often during elections or crises, around the world.

What is Ushahidi? from Ushahidi on Vimeo.

Considering the challenge of gathering information during a chaotic event like the attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, members of the Ushahidi developer community discussed how to meet the challenge of what they called a “hot flash event“.

It was that crisis that started two members of the Ushahidi dev community (Chris Blow and Kaushal Jhalla) thinking about what needs to be done when you have massive amounts of information flying around. We’re at that point where the barriers for any ordinary person sharing valuable tactical and strategic information openly is at hand. How do you ferret the good data from the bad?

They focused on the first three hours of a crisis. Any working journalist knows that often during fast moving news events false information is often reported as fact before being challenged. How do you increase the volume of sources while maintaining accuracy and also sifting through all of that information to find the information that is the most relevant and important?

Enter Swift River. The project is an “attempt to use both machine algorithms and crowdsourcing to verify incoming streams of information”. Scanning the project description, the Swift River application appears to allow people to create a bundle of RSS feeds, whether those feeds are users or hashtags on Twitter, blogs or mainstream media sources. Whoever creates the RSS bundle is the administrator, allowing them to add or delete sources. Users, referred to as sweepers, can then tag information or choose the bits of information in those RSS feeds that they ‘believe’. (I might quibble with the language. Belief isn’t verification.) Analysis is done of the links, and “veracity of links is computed”.

It’s a fascinating idea and a project that I will be watching. While Ushahidi is designed to crowdsource information and reports from people, Swift River is designed to ‘crowdsource the filter’ for reports across the several networks on the internet. For those of you interested, the project code is made available under the open-source MIT Licence.

One of the things that I really like about this project is that it’s drawing on talent and ideas from around the world, including some dynamic people I’ve had the good fortunte to meet. Last year when I was back in the US for the elections, I met Dave Troy of Twittervision fame who helped develop the an application to crowdsource reports of voting problems during the US elections last year, Twitter Vote Report. The project gained a lot of support including MTV’s Rock the Vote and National Public Radio. He has released the code for the Twitter Vote Report application on GitHub.

To help organise the Swift River project for Ushahidi, they have enlisted African tech investor, Jon Gosier of Appfrica Labs in Uganda. They have based Appfrica Labs loosely on Paul Graham’s Y Combinator. I interviewed Jon Gosier at TEDGlobal in Oxford this summer about a mobile phone search service in Uganda. He’s a Senior TED Fellow.

There are a lot of very interesting elements in this project. First off, they have highlighted a major issue with crowdsourced reporting: Current filters and methods of verification struggle as the amount of information increases. The issue is especially problematic in the chaotic hours after an event like the attacks in Mumbai.

I’m curious to see if there is a reputation system built into it. As they say, this works based on the participation of experts and non-experts. How do you gauge the expertise of a sweeper? And I don’t mean to imply as a journalist that I think that journalists are ‘experts’ by default. For instance, I know a lot about US politics but consider myself a novice when it comes to British politics.

It’s great to see people tackling these thorny issues and testing them in real world situations. I wonder if this type of filtering can also be used to surface and filter information for ongoing news stories and not just crises and breaking news. Filters are increasingly important as the volume of information increases. Building better filters is a noble and much needed task.

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Future of journalism: Uncertain but not hopeless

As a journalist who I am sure has been (and possibly still is) considered ‘barking mad’ by some of my colleagues in the industry, quite a bit of what Clay Shirky wrote in his post about newspapers thinking the unthinkable resonated with me. I’m still digesting it because I think the main thrust of what he said was that the industry is entering a period of great uncertainty. I saw this day coming in August of 1993 when I saw Mosaic, the first graphical web browser, in a student computer lab at the University of Illinois Champaign-Urbana. As I wrote in my first post here on Strange Attractor, I knew that the web would fundamentally change journalism.

It took longer than I thought it would. After I left university and went to Washington DC for my first jobs, it was like taking a step backwards into internet history compared to where the University of Illinois was in 1994. Did I know where it was all headed in 1994? Absolutely not. But I’d say it’s a lot easier to see where the internet is heading now than where we’re heading in journalism.

I’m still digesting what Clay has written, but it seemed to me that he was attempting to move beyond the self-denial that the industry has exhibited for much of the past 15 years.

It isn’t that newspapers didn’t see the internet coming. The problem was that newspaper companies and, to be honest, most print journalists tried to adapt the internet to newspapers rather than adapt the news business to the internet. If most (not all by any means) print journalists were honest with ourselves, we would stop trying to lay the blame entirely at the feet of management and avaricious owners and own up to our own resistance to the internet. Too few of us went running boldly to the embrace the future. There’s still time, and it’s better to move towards the future on your own steam than be pushed as many of us are now.

Clay was trying to turn a page and say we’re in the midst of revolution and have been for a while not. Get over it.

The internet is a disruptive technology, not something that politely challenges that existing order. Now that the revolution has met the worst recession in at least 60 years, we’re entering extremely uncertain times.

As Clay wrote:

So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?

I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it.

But let’s not confuse uncertainty with hopelessness. Journalists are not in a hopeless situation. Any journalist can now become a publisher, and from my own experience, regaining your voice is liberating, empowering and also professionally beneficial. Not only is the cost of publishing approaching zero, the cost of experimentation is too. We don’t have to pay for presses. We don’t even have to pay for desk-top publishing. You can do broadcast-quality interviews with a person on the other side of the world for free with Skype. Technology can threaten our business model but it can be liberating for our journalism. We just have to do what we always done, great journalism, and build a great community around it. Honestly, since I started blogging and doing social media journalism five years ago, it’s been some of the most gratifying journalism of my career.

As Steve Yelvington wrote recently, “We don’t have a clue where this is going … and that’s OK.” Steve was writing about the launch of the Guardian’s Open Platform (the Guardian being my job). Steve would love to have the resources we have at the Guardian or those of the BBC or the New York Times to launch a platform, but he doesn’t need them. He’s building his sites on the open-source platform, Drupal, and it’s army of users and developers around the world are constantly working to extend it. You don’t need expensive technology to innovate.

We’re entering a post-industrial era in journalism. It’s scary. It’s uncertain for journalists, but just remember, it’s not hopeless.

How to run a news organisation in a down economy

The year has started out with more hand wringing about the predictable (and predicted), but very dire, economic situation of newspapers, particularly in the US. News organisations’ belief that quality will be their saviour is usually the result of projections of their own information consumption patterns and standards for quality on their audience, motivations that their audience may or may not share.

Newspapers are not maintaining the audiences necessary to support their current costs. Steve Yelvington just wrote this post about the bad news for newspapers and rays of hope, which is a comment that he left on Jeff Jarvis’ list of newspaper bad news from 2008:

At the core, it’s not an advertising problem. Local businesses still need to reach potential local customers, and they’re willing (although certainly not eager) to pay for results.

It’s primarily a failure to attract and retain a commercially relevant audience that’s breaking the newspaper business model.

I agree with Steve that multi-platform, multi-revenue stream businesses are necessary to survive, and many publications are in the process of the wrenching change required to achieve that.

But there is another, equally important, way to make the necessary change for news organisations looking to survive in this very challenging economic environment, and that is to disrupt their own costs (and I don’t mean cutting head count even further). While some blame digital technology and the internet for the death of newspapers, I would argue that embracing disruptive digital technology could lead to substantial cost savings.

Off the shelf, pro-sumer gear straddles the line between consumer and professional kit but costs substantially less. Open source software can extend the life of aging computers in the office, can run the servers and handle most CMS functions. Open-source content-management systems might not be ready for the largest sites, but most small- to medium-sized news sites could easily use Drupal or WordPress for their entire site. In the hands of a competent contractor with the occasional tweaking from a third-party vendor, the site will easily cope with moderate traffic.

I even think there is a possible radical model where there is a small office that handles core administrative and sales functions but the journalists are by and large dispersed, tele-commuting as much as possible. They would work as close to the story and their sources as possible and file remotely. They can use Skype or IM to communicate with their managers, and Twitter-like service Yammer to keep in touch with each other and help prevent a sense of isolation. Maybe I’m advocating this because as a journalist who worked in a foreign bureau and often out in the field for several years, this type of working seems natural to me.

A lot of successful digital content businesses already work on this model, and I think that we’ll see more competition in this space from within the industry. In this downturn, digital outcasts made redundant by traditional news organisations will start their own boot-strapped news organisations, potentially pushing many of their former employers to the wall, unless the incumbents radically, not incrementally, remake themselves. It is only a matter of time. The digital disrupters will run very lean, digitally-focused businesses with multiple revenue streams, as Steve suggests.

For a model of the thinking that will drive this type of business, look to this post by Eric Ries HOW TO: Raise Money in a Down Economy on Mashable. He serves as a venture advisor for Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and talks about trying to raise money for a venture in 2004, when scepticism remained after the crash. His advice is:

The most important thing you can do to improve your chances of raising money in a down economy is to build a great company. A great startup is more than just a miniature version of a great large company. All of its process should be focused on innovating and learning. Today, it’s possible to use a combination of free and open source software, community-generated content, and agile software development to bring new products to market with extremely low cost.

Add professionally created and curated content and apply this model for an innovation-led business, and you’ll find a way out of this perfect storm affecting the newspaper industry. It’s eerily similar to the Newspaper Next project recommendations for good reason.

However, I ask those of you toiling in the industry right now. How close is this disruptive way of doing business to the environment at your news organisation?

  • Is your company focused on learning and innovation?
  • To what extent is your company using free and open-source software?
  • Is your company focused on delivering information while cutting costs?
  • Is your company looking for new ways to partner with and build new relationships with your audience?

Cutting costs doesn’t just have to happen through job cuts. Companies need empower their people to work smarter, spend money more wisely, and focus on doing more with less. There are many ways to achieve this, and I think we’ll see experimentation and innovation this year as the economic crisis deepens. Necessity will be the mother of re-invention.

“OK open systems beat great closed systems every time”

The title of this post is a quote, via Steve Yelvington, from Prodigy’s Vice President of marketing around the time that the Web arrived and changed the online game. Usually I just reference links like this in Delicious, but Steve’s post Early to the game but late to learn how to play needs a little more attention.

In the current business climate for newspapers, Steve brings a wealth of experience and history that few folks in the industry have and, as he points out, it is not that newspaper didn’t try to adapt but that they tried to adapt the web to their existing business rather than adapting for the web. Newspapers tried to keep their closed systems as they moved online, locking their content in online services. The web might have arrived ‘pathetic and weak’ but it was ‘open and extensible’, says Steve, and it eventually buried online services like Prodigy, Compuserve and even AOL. He quotes Jack Schafer from a Slate piece titled “How Newspapers Tried to Invent the Web:”

From the beginning, newspapers sought to invent the Web in their own image by repurposing the copy, values, and temperament found in their ink-and-paper editions.

I’ve long fought against the re-purposing reflex of shovelware, mindlessly slapping content from another medium onto the web. As we move to integrated newsrooms, we’re often still treating the web as just another distribution channel that simply has to be optimised for Google. Here is why it isn’t. To quote Steve:

Many of us who were there at the time knew that human interaction, not newspaper reading, would be the most powerful motivator of online usage. Certainly I knew it; I had run a dialup bulletin board for years as a hobby. But as hundreds of newspapers rushed to “go online,” few even bothered to ask basic questions about content strategy. It was, many declared as of they were saying something wise, “just another edition.”

But it’s not.

If human interaction is the ‘killer app’ of the internet, which I agree with Steve it is, how would this make a news site different? It is only in the so-called Web 2.0 era that we finally started adding social elements into our news web sites. And if human interaction is primary motivator of online usage, can we as journalists fail to interact and still hope to remain relevant? Open systems are not just about a choice of technology. The philosophy of open systems is also about how we use technology. Open is a philosophy that drives us to use technology to bolster human interaction. It is why Steve talks about the mission statement of his news site as being to increase the social capital in the communities Morris serves.

Jay Rosen has been doing a lot of thinking about closed versus open editorial systems, and he characterised this comment as one of his clearest comparisons yet of the two systems:

The strength of a closed system is that it has controls, in same sense that an accounting system puts controls in place. Stories are assigned, reported, edited and checked (copy edited) by a team using a protocol, or newsroom standard. These are the hallmarks of the closed system. The controls create the reliability, right?


Open systems take advantage of cheap production tools and the magic distribution system of the Web. This leads to a flood of “cheap” production in the blogosphere, some of which is valuable and worth distributing in wider rings, much of which is not. Thus, a characteristic means of creating value online is what I called the intelligent filter to do that sorting and choosing.

If you look at successful open systems, they don’t try to prevent “bad,” unreliable or low quality stories from being created or published. They don’t try to prevent the scurrilous. But the Los Angeles Times would. Typically, successful sites within open systems “filter the best stuff to the front page.” And this is how they try to become reliable, despite the fact that anyone can sign up and post rants.

That way of creating trust (or reliability) is different than the way a closed system–like the health team at Time magazine–does it. Therefore the ethics will be different.

And he talks about hybrid systems, which is where I think some of the most interesting work is going on. We live in an AND world not an OR world, and I fear sometimes journalists’ tendency to paint the world in black and white infects our approach to our own way of working.

For me, I don’t use technology simply because I’m neophilic. I use it because it helps me do better journalism, in a way that is more useful to people in my network, or as Dan Gillmor says, the people formerly known as the audience. The internet as an open system means that my methods aren’t a fixed destination but an ever evolving, extensible process that adapts as the network changes, whether I conceive of the network in terms of the technology or the people I’m interacting with. Through all this my core journalistic values and ethics haven’t changed. That’s the constant.

I’m feeling a little philosophical at the start of the New Year. I am an online journalist. If the road trip I took for the US elections reminded me of anything, it reminded me of the power of networked journalism, which in terms of both the technology and the human connectedness increases almost constantly. Let’s just look at the expanding reach of mobile phones and data. In 1999, I got my first mobile modem and started to be freed from my desk. It ran at 9600 baud, slow even then. In 2009, I used a DSL-class mobile network card, and when I was on the move, I used a Nokia N82, which like the iPhone and Blackberry, allowed me to continue to use key internet services like Twitter, Flickr and Facebook. The network is not only mobile, it is on my mobile.

Open systems are a huge opportunity for journalists, not a threat to our professional livelihoods. We journalists don’t have to limit ourselves to closed systems, we have a vast range of open systems that can support and improve our work. I know that 2008 ended with a lot of anxiety for many journalists, much of it from a sense that our professional lives were out of our control. But by embracing the network, you can start taking back control of your professional destiny.

Running a small to mid-size news site? Try this CMS

Steve Yelvington is one of my heroes. Last summer, we swapped stories over beer in Kuala Lumpur with Peter Ong after talking citizen media at an IFRA Asia workshop. Steve told me how he wrote a newsreader for the Atari ST in 1985 and how he got the Minneapolis Star-Tribune newsroom on the internet in 1993.

Now, Steve should be everyone’s hero. He’s working on a next-generation news site management system, and he and the folks at Morris Digital Works have pledged to release the code under the open-source GPL licence. Steve describes the design ethos of the system:

When we’re done, this will be an innovation platform, not just a content publishing and community platform. …

Open tools and open platforms are great for developers, but what we really want to do is place this kind of power directly in the hands of content producers. They won’t have to know a programming language, or how databases work, or even HTML to create special presentations based on database queries. Need a new XML feed? Point and click.

It’s based on the open-source Drupal platform, and he talks what is possible with the system.

We’re integrating a lot more social-networking functionality, which we think is an important tool for addressing the “low frequency” problem that most news sites face.

We’re going to be aggressive aggregators, pulling in RSS feeds from every community resource we can find, and giving our users the ability to vote the results up/down. We’ll link heavily to all the sources, including “competitors.”

Ranking/rating, commenting, and RSS feeds will be ubiquitous. Users of Twitter, Pownce and Friendfeed will be able to follow topics of interest.

I couldn’t agree with Steve more when he says that internet start-ups have been smart in adopting open-source tools while newspapers have failed to embrace them. That thinking has to change. Steve is looking for collaborators on the project, and I think this is a golden opportunity for news sites to work together to build a platform for their future.