The Future of Open-Source Software in Journalism
For many years, journalism practitioners have predicted that technology, and open-source technology in particular, would reshape how journalists report stories and uncover facts. Less discussed have been the myriad ways that open-source solutions are changing the industry itself. In newsrooms around the world, news innovators are collaborating to rewrite the software that powers the very processes by which news is created, edited, published, and archived.
To explore these issues and discuss our role in the evolution, Sourcefabric founder Sava Tatić recently spoke with Vahe Arabian, host of the State of Digital Publishing podcast, a weekly dive into the trends shaping the media business. Below are edited and condensed excerpts from that conversation. Listen to the full episode here.
On the genesis of Sourcefabric:
I was working as a journalist and editor at different places up until 1999, when I got an offer to head a media lab at the Media Development Loan Fund (since renamed to Media Development Investment Fund), which provides financing to independent media organisations. As part of the MDLF media lab we started CAMP – the Center for Advanced Media, Prague – to find ways to save independent journalism outlets [that were threatened in Eastern Europe]. To do that we were looking for what we called “web automation software” – the precursor to the content-management system, or CMS. Back then you couldn't find anything that could do languages other than English, and there was nothing that was open source.
We decided to make the solution open source and free to anybody who had something to say. I was using my experience in journalism and the experience of other people who joined me to make something that worked for even the most tech-phobic journalist.
When we started Sourcefabric in April 2010, I wanted to build open-source software that was larger than CAMP, to power news organisations of any size. We wanted something that was really industrial grade – not just the best open-source software, but the best software that happens to be open source. That was our goal, and I think now we have something that stacks up against anything else on the market, including the most expensive commercial competitors.
How open-source software is like a Tesla Roadster:
We wanted to create lighter architecture that would bring journalists greater comfort in how they work. To that end, we wanted to remove the tedium from day-to-day jobs and, in the process, win hearts and minds. I could compare what we did to what Elon Musk did with his Tesla Roadster. To prove that electric cars are viable, he built the Roadster to compete with any supercar, just to show that electric cars were more than fuddy-duddy vehicles going from point A to point B with a range of 50 kilometers. In other words, we wanted to prove that open-source software is capable of powering major organisations that deliver news day in and day out.
On coders, curators and the critical role of customers:
We are the custodians and the curators of the code, but more and more contributions are coming from our customers. We’re not here to create a dependency, and we’re very much against vendor dependency. We tell people openly, ‘Let’s start together but you should become prolific in your own software.’ We encourage people to have [someone on staff] who understands the technological parts, someone who really knows the ins and outs and what is the shortest way of getting functionality out of the software.
On the importance of quality journalism to democracy, and why open-source software is a key element of that vision:
What we are doing is helping people to express themselves and to publish worthy journalism. We believe that quality journalism is the lifeblood of democratic societies, and we're trying to prove that open-source technology is the backbone for that kind of journalism.
Some might ask, ‘Why are you making this complex software if there is already something like WordPress around?’ The answer is because at some point, simple software becomes a burden and will hold you back. Our idea is to have something that can be used by small organisations, where the only limitation is ambition. You can fly as high as you want; the software will not take you down.
On why collaboration is the best business strategy:
Our advantage is that we’re not bound to the interests of any newsroom in particular. For example, Arc Publishing [which is owned by the Washington Post] will always have to cater to the Washington Post first and then to their customers. Sourcefabric, on the other hand, is built from the ground up as a collaborative effort. The more partners we get, the better the software gets, and the better it will serve the entire journalistic community.
In terms of collaboration, some clients put money in, some contribute developers, and some bring both. Our Live Blog software has developed this way. Quite a few players out there have contributed, such as the German news agency, dpa. They’ve contributed a lot of thinking, lots of ideas, and lots of feedback. As a result, we're constantly improving our software and juggling everything so that there is enough funding, enough developers, and the least amount of development waste.
On our process:
While we always do some scoping on basic requirements, most clients come with well-specified needs as to what they want. Then we go further and encourage them not to be bound by their tools, the legacy tools they’ve been using. Maybe there are things they are doing only because the software made them do it that way. The better way is to imagine how you’d like to work. What would be the least painful process? What would save you time? What would remove the annoyances? This is an iterative process ...that is also future facing in some way.
One lesson from a career in news-industry innovation:
Don’t squander resources on building in-house solutions. It’s possible to have an open-source tool where you can become the owner, completely autonomously, to make sure that your needs are handled in a fast way, while the core software development is handled by somebody else. That's huge in terms of saving time and the capacity of developers.
Looking ahead to the next decade at Sourcefabric:
Our plan is simple – keep doing what we’re doing. For instance, we will not abandon our first vertical, and that’s the news agency clients. The whole idea of the Superdesk Wire Club is to support the primary group that was first to support us. But, while we do that, we’ll look to work with more publishers. At the moment we are trying to present our publisher component – Superdesk Publisher – as a solution to manage all of a publisher’s digital platforms elegantly and in one place. So, digital publishing will be our next big push, and, of course, we will pursue the corporate market.
Bottom line: we're a mission-driven organisation, and we definitely won’t move away from journalism. It will always be our focus. I believe this focus is more necessary because of the industry’s current situation, where we see newspapers dying left, right, and center. We will do our best to develop technology to help save what's left of journalism, and to encourage new journalism startups to use our technology and other open-source technologies to go out there and fill that space. This is the area where we really want to make a difference.