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Why Open Source is Good News for the News Media

Open Source Software - Openness benefits the future evolution of the news as well as its software.
Open Source Software - Openness benefits the future evolution of the news as well as its software.

More news organisations are starting to join forces to report big, complex stories like The Panama Papers. But collaboration doesn’t have to be limited to the editorial side of the newsroom. Technology is also an area where news organisations can find partners who support their vision and goals.

Journalism tools that support digital-first publishing are becoming more important as news outlets across the board seek to connect with audiences across a wider range of channels. Usually that means installing new software, since the legacy systems used in most newsrooms are relics of the print era.

What’s the best approach to choosing  software for independent news outlets?

Often the first thought is “we’ll build our own.” But this path has long-term disadvantages. Says Helen Vogt, head of innovations at Norwegian national news agency NTB, “A tailor-made solution, developed in-house, would not be able to keep up with and benefit from the constant technological developments that transform our business on a daily basis.”  

Not only that; it is also a common pitfall to underestimate what is actually involved in such a project. “Building a news management system today is a huge undertaking, and even a modest media player would need to beef up its development team numbers significantly for the project duration,” says Sourcefabric project manager Vince Ryan.

Meanwhile, proprietary software is expensive, both in terms of the initial outlay as well as the long-term costs of vendor lock-in. Proprietary systems are essentially black boxes, making customers dependent on the vendors for any customisations needed to make the system work in their environment, along with any additional development or maintenance.

By contrast, open-source solutions are made to be a shared resource, accessible to all and available to be improved upon. As a foundation of future development, open-source software is the equivalent of living soil rather than poured concrete. It promotes flexibility and resilience in the systems and the organisations that grow out of it.

Brook Thomas, CTO of Superdesk first adopter Australian Associated Press, notes, “Managing a platform that allows you to enhance, add and remove functionality without fuss is essential.”

Choosing open-source tools for journalism is not just practical. It also speaks to an organisation’s values. For Berlin daily taz, our media partner on the Google DNI Fund co-financed project to build a platform for reader payments, open source fits into a broader philosophy. “Our vision is to create a set of funding mechanisms for content that are in line with our cooperative ownership and ideals,” taz editors state in the project summary.

Similarly, our Live Coverage Ecosystem project (also awarded a grant from the Google DNI Fund) seeks to make real-time news reporting availability to news outlets of all sizes and editorial budgets through the use of the open-source Live Blog platform.

A shared interest in accessibility is part of why independent journalists and open-source software developers are natural allies. A desire to foster more transparency and accountability in the public sphere is another.

When technology developers and journalists work together, it’s good news for everyone.

Want to know more about our open-source tools for journalism? Find out how Sourcefabric can help you and don't forget to sign up for our newsletter here.