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Why We Need Open Source More Than Ever

(photo: By Sollok29 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

How is the media business going to change in 2018? Every year, there is a slew of articles about which app or platform is going to be the latest game-changer. Yet no matter how confident the tone of these predictions, there’s an underlying sense that we in the news business can’t control the ways that technology will determine our fate.  

As someone who’s been involved in newsrooms and software for a long time, I am puzzled by this kind of speculation. It seems to miss a basic point about what is predictable in technology and how news organizations can manage it to their own advantage.

The price of the packaging

Any time there is an innovation, two forces emerge. One is to make the new idea freely available for everyone’s benefit. The other is to put in a box with nice packaging and a brand name and sell it for a fee. In the software world, these two forces are represented by open source and closed systems respectively.

And there are trade-offs. Open source may be “free” but requires an investment of your own time and resources to set up in your environment. Whereas paying for closed software means paying the manufacturer to do the work for you. That may be a faster and easier solution up front, but leaves you dependent on the manufacturer over the long term.

At Sourcefabric, we believe independent media should be independent in every way — including technologically. Small and medium-sized news organizations around the world who are increasingly dependent on Google and Facebook shouldn’t be obligated to other big tech companies for the software that runs their newsrooms and their websites too.

Our mission at Sourcefabric is to not only make the best possible software for journalism, but also to make it available to those independent, quality news organizations most in need of a technology advantage to stay competitive.

Proving the value of openness  

These values inform every aspect of our work. One of our recent projects was to help Insajder, an investigative reporting organization in Serbia, escape the constraints of a commercial TV environment hampering their ability to report on corruption. We helped them launch their own portal online to distribute their video exposés.  

Another longtime client, El Faro in El Salvador, is also an investigative news outlet continually facing pressure on its form of accountability journalism. True to its ethos of independence, the editors of El Faro ran our first open-source CMS by themselves before becoming our client.

That is just the kind of scrappy DIY spirit we are happy to see among news organizations and always aim to support.

In my experience, every editor and newsroom manager knows the limitations of the technology they have inherited, no matter what country or conditions they may be operating in. And most of the time, they want something better, to do better journalism. The main difference between large and small news organizations isn’t their editorial aspirations or openness to innovation. It’s a question of budget and resources.

Making the best tools accessible for journalists everywhere

For the past few years, we have focused on creating a robust, dependable content production machine that could sit at the heart of any news operation: this is our Superdesk newsroom software which we developed together with large news agencies including Australian Associated Press and NTB, the Norwegian national news agency.

At the same time, we are not bound to any one news organization, business or content model. Sourcefabric is here to provide and maintain tools that can be shaped to fit any newsroom.

The Australian Associated Press product team that works on Superdesk

The Australian Associated Press product team that works on Superdesk

The adaptability of open-source tools is a smart choice for news organizations operating in a fast-changing media landscape. Open-source licenses are also a solid business choice. Our development partners own their own software, directing its development to suit their needs today and in the years to come. 

Why we need open source more than ever before

When we started Sourcefabric in 2010, we set ourselves the lofty goal of creating open-source technology that can give independent voices a fighting chance.

We are currently experiencing an unprecedented (and accelerating) rate of consolidation in the media business. To take one recent example, the November 2017 deal between the Postmedia and Torstar conglomerates in Canada came at the expense of 36 regional and local titles.

Even more worryingly, there is a new level of interference being aimed at the free press from all sides, including from governments that are nominally democratic. A recent study by Reporters Without Borders observed that we are now at a tipping point of failing democracies and strangleholds on the media.

Independent news organizations will need every piece of useful technology and any other advantage they can get in order to survive.

That's one reason all of Sourcefabric's products are freely available on our website and on GitHub. I especially encourage independent news organizations to download our most powerful tools for modern newsrooms, including Superdesk and Live Blog. Run them as is or fork them - and let us know what you think!

If you’ve got coding skills, I invite you to contribute code, either to one of our tools or to another open-source project for journalism. And if you’re a regular reader of any publication, now is the time to become a subscriber.

For as much as the news business continues to change, a few things are predictable. If we don’t write our own story, whether as a news article or lines of code, someone else will do it for us.