Some publishers, including thought leaders like John Paton, have cited the potential of using Open Source software to develop low-cost digital newsrooms. In the blog of the Journal Register’s Ben Franklin Project, they write: “we will be using only free web-based tools” and they then deliver a catalogue of such tools.
T. S. Eliot, when speaking of the “Free Verse” movement, wrote “No verse is free for the man who wants to do a good job.” In Silicon Valley there has long been a similar saying that “Free Software is never really free.” The issue at hand is what business and finance folks call TCO: Total Cost of Ownership. TCO is the measure of the true cost of a system, including acquisition, customization, support, maintenance, training, and several other cost factors.
Open Source software is also known as Free Software, as in the Free Software Foundation, the non-profit body that supports the Open Source movement and who wrote the most common Open Source license, the General Public License or GPL. But “free” refers to the freedom to use and distribute the software; it does not actually refer to price. “The word free in the term free software refers to freedom (liberty) and is not at all related to monetary cost.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Free_software)
For newsrooms, “free” Open Source software may well be the most expensive option available.
Now, before I get too deep into the issues with Open Source newsrooms, I want to go on record as saying that I am a proponent of Open Source software myself. I love WordPress, and all its fun plug-ins (look, I am blogging in it right now). My company’s web site runs on WordPress and our cloud-based newsroom software runs on the free Open Source Linux/MySQL platform. I am among other things, a tech geek with a team of open source developers. I even write code myself, when the developers aren’t looking. I can afford to use Open Source.
But most small newsrooms (and a lot of larger ones) do not have the technical depth to use Open Source, software, and if they do, that technical depth is part of the cost of an Open Source solution. Most newsrooms looking to use Open Source would either have to accept out-of-the-box packaged solutions, which are in general insufficient for the modern digital newsroom, or hire developers to build proper newsroom software. And then pay those developers for support, hosting, and training, not to mention ongoing customizations and maintenance.
A Few Words About WordPress
WordPress, for example, is not a newsroom system, not unless you are a really small operation with little or nothing in the way of editorial workflow, multimedia, analytics, multi-channel publishing, media management, and third-party aggregation needs. WordPress, for all its publishing power and ease-of-use, does not publish to print and email, does not integrate page planning or Run-of-Print advertising, nor does it integrate advertising systems like coupons, page sponsorship, or restaurant guides.
WordPress has some useful plug-ins for journalists, things that notate simple workflow states and multiple contributors. But it doesn’t provide an editorial dashboard with at-a-glance views of the status of dozens, or hundreds, or stories. It doesn’t manage extra fields for flagging print vs. web versions of a story, manage delayed publishing, track the status of story components like video, podcasts, or slideshows. It doesn’t provide for the latest newsroom features such as tag pages, realtime story trending, and support for moderated (deputized) citizen journalism. There is a lot it doesn’t do for a professional newsroom.
If you want to blog, and you can deliver your message sufficiently with WordPress, then fine, use it. But if you want a professional newsroom that enables effective multi-channel digital publishing and advertising, and you want to look into Open Source options, then you’d have to look at far more sophisticated systems, like Drupal or Joomla.
Roll Your Own with Drupal or Joomla
There are several Open Source development environments out there, but both Drupal and Joomla have a following in the world of publishing. These more sophisticated options are really programming environments; you have to build your own newsroom from pre-built components and custom programming. Open Source comes in two main flavors: free building blocks that you assemble and customize using developers that you hire, or complete packaged software that a vendor has already created and they are charging you for. The latter looks a lot like proprietary (i.e. not “free”) software solutions, and the former requires you to hire developers to build your newsroom.
If you hire developers to build a custom Drupal or Joomla newsroom then you are taking a risk that the developers can deliver on what you need for your business. Remember that the industry metrics on custom development are quite poor: according to the Standish Group’s Chaos Report, at least a third of software projects fail. (See my earlier post on why you don’t want to build your own newsroom.)
You can purchase Open Source based newsroom software packages, but remember, you are still paying for software from a company; the “free” part is that your software is not yours; you have a license to something that can be freely distributed elsewhere. This also means that you get almost no competitive advantage.
Pros and Cons of Open Source
Let’s put quality issues aside for a moment (both Open Source and proprietary software and the companies that support those systems can of course be good or bad). Let’s assume for a moment that you are doing a research project on the best available solutions for our newsroom, and that you took the time to select good vendors and systems, and that you have a shortlist of both Open Source and proprietary systems. Here are some issues to weigh:
Is the Open Source system really an end-to-end solution? How easy will it be to integrate other systems, such as email newsletters, analytics, and adservers? Do you have the in-house skills to do the development and integration work yourself? Proprietary systems tend to be feature rich because those features are market-driven; is your Open Source solution sufficiently supported by the news industry to remain competitive?
Does the Open Source solution require you to hire someone to customize, install, configure, and maintain it? Do you know how to evaluate and hire developers? Do you know how to track all those costs so that you can compare them to a proprietary packaged solution? After all, the TCO for a proprietary system is fairly well-defined: it has standard terms for its license, installation, training, customizations, integrations (with third-party products), customer support, and maintenance.
Proprietary solutions require you to go back to the original software vendor to get new features and customizations, and support. This is a limitation compared to Open Source solutions that can be maintained by an entire community of Open Source developers, and where you are not necessarily beholden to one company. But this by no means suggests that a new developer would just take over your custom Open Source code. A new developer will almost always advise you to throw out and start again, coding the system way that they would have handled it.
Stability is also an issue; will the people who created your Open Source solution be available when you want new features or changes? How will they charge you for ongoing new features? Proprietary software vendors add new features every year, addressing market needs, and they tend to remain around to support their systems.
Open Source is great, and it can save you money if you have the right skills and capacity to adopt it. But it’s like being your own general contractor. Have you ever built your own house or managed a complete kitchen remodel? It requires fortitude and knowledge of the build process. It requires you to understand building codes and materials, hire your own workmen and evaluate quality.
You would think that my own startup company iMedia Revenue would of course prefer Open Source solutions, since we have Open Source developers on staff. But in fact, we also simultaneously deliver our solutions on Windows/Microsoft SQLServer as well. Why would we pay license fees to Microsoft when the system works just fine on Open Source Linux/MySQL? The truth is, we pay more for developer’s time when we work with Open Source solutions. With packaged software we spend less time coding.
It is a balance we maintain, and it all comes down to an analysis of Total Cost of Ownership.