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Nieman Journalism Lab
Pushing to the future of journalism — A project of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard

A WordPress for news orgs: Knight gives Bay Citizen, Texas Tribune $975,000 for open-source CMS

This morning, the Knight Foundation announced a new $975,000 grant to the Texas Tribune and the Bay Citizen, two young nonprofit news organizations, to build an open-source publishing platform designed specifically for news outlets.

The new CMS, to be built with Django, will be both SEO- and social media-friendly. More importantly, it will include revenue-raising tools, including ways to manage subscriptions and levels of membership; compatibility with customer service programs and ad networks; and a credit card function for smoothly integrated donations.

Dubbed “Armstrong” in honor of Louis Armstrong (and also as a hat tip to Django Reinhardt), the CMS is slated to launch this June. The name also echoes Ellington, another CMS designed for news orgs and built on top of Django — although Ellington is a for-profit product owned by the owners of the Lawrence Journal-World, where Django first evolved. (Jazz-related names are a long-standing tradition among CMS developers.)

I spoke to the two creators of the project, Tribune founding CTO Higinio “H.O” Maycotte and Bay Citizen CTO Brian Kelley, who were both in Austin, where the Tribune is based. Their goal, they told me, is to give all news organizations — including those with small budgets — a way to build a more sophisticated, dynamic web presence. In doing so, they say, Armstrong will provide an alternative to popular platforms like WordPress that were not created with news organizations in mind.

“The idea is, you get a lot more flexibility in a framework like this,” Maycotte said. “While it’s working from scratch, it comes with a lot of things to get you going.”

How will it work? According to the just-launched Armstrong website, “Armstrong provides the software, and your organization provides the technical talent to create the design, setup the software, and migrate any existing content into the new system.”

The site notes that organizations without a technology development team could hire a Django developer to do a design customization. They estimate that a typical customization would cost about $15,000. News organizations built on Armstrong would benefit from periodic upgrades, again helping them have a more cutting-edge web presence without a huge investment.

“We want to make the industry sustainable, not just our individual organizations,” Kelley said.

The Armstrong project, a year in the making, grew out of the collaboration between two regional news nonprofits founded by wealthy businessmen. Before The Bay Citizen launched last May, it turned to the Texas Tribune, founded in November of 2009, for guidance. It ended up with a lot more than that. First, the Tribune helped the nascent Bay Citizen find and hire Kelley. Then the Tribune donated the code it had developed, which The Bay Citizen used as the foundation for its own website. (It also made significant additions and adaptations — the two sites don’t look that similar.)

From the beginning, the goal of donating the code was to work towards the creation of an open-source version for all news organizations, Kelley and Maycotte said. Sharing the code between the two outlets was a good way to do some initial troubleshooting and develop the software further.

Then the two organizations applied for Knight funding, receiving nearly $1 million to finance the first year of the project. The money will go to paying the salaries of two engineers — one at each organization, who will work full-time on Armstrong — as well as for the dedicated staff time of other employees, web hosting, and a planned annual conference for organizations that use the new CMS.

The familiar slogans — that collaboration is the new competition, and that nonprofit news outlets should share resources — have been around for a while. But Armstrong is particularly ambitious in its attempt to build collaboration into the most basic framework of news sites.

Both the Tribune and The Bay Citizen are well funded, and Kelley and Maycotte said that the Armstrong project is an opportunity to enable other news organizations that don’t have their technology budgets to take advantage of what their two organizations have learned. They’re also hoping that the project will attract further support from tech companies who might be willing to give some help to the struggling news industry. While they aren’t ready to announce any names yet, they said they’re aiming to assemble a sizable collection of tech partners.

“It’s nice to be in a nonprofit organization that’s interested in the idea of sharing technology, that’s not been bogged down in the idea of licensing,” Maycotte said.

[Disclosure: The Knight Foundation is a financial supporter of the Nieman Journalism Lab.]

                                   
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Justin Ellis    July 18, 2014
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  • http://byjoeybaker.com/ Joey Baker

    Again? The last time worked so well: http://www.populousproject.com/

  • http://byjoeybaker.com/ Joey Baker

    Again? The last time worked so well: http://www.populousproject.com/

  • http://byjoeybaker.com/ Joey Baker

    Again? The last time worked so well: http://www.populousproject.com/

  • http://twitter.com/leeamoran lee moran

    Bravo. This reads like a solid start to saving the small local papers that should not be allowed to fade away.

  • http://twitter.com/leeamoran lee moran

    Bravo. This reads like a solid start to saving the small local papers that should not be allowed to fade away.

  • http://twitter.com/tbarkow Tim Barkow

    This is an interesting development, and I applaud the work and effort that’s gone into it, but I also think it raises some potentially interesting and important questions:

    First, is this something these news orgs should be investing in? It’s not core to their business model (outside of receiving the Knight funding), and at this early stage, managing an open source technology project could easily become a distraction. (It’s very hard to do well.) It sounds cool and generates press, but how does it help pay the bills?

    Is Python the right choice for other news orgs? It’s a great language, but knowledgeable developers are more rare and expensive to hire. Will an “average” news org be able to build a successful team of Python experts, or would they be better off with PHP or a managed SaaS solution?

    Finally, is starting this type of project just a “cost of doing business” with a talented development team, and almost a requirement to attract top talent and keep them motivated?

    If so (even partially), then doesn’t that point to a failure somewhere core in the business model? Shouldn’t their daily work be mission critical, compelling and exciting, and not, as I suspect, viewed as the mysterious toilings of geeks by the “cool kids” — management, writers and editors?

    I don’t have any answers, the landscape is changing too fast to apply yesterday’s solutions to today’s problems. But given how rough the seas are today, taking your eye off the wheel can be fatal.

  • ~b

    Sounds great but Tim Barkow makes a great point about Python.

    Also, the first thing that pops up in my mind is security… do we really want a large swath of news sites potentially vulnerable to identical threats?

  • ~b

    Sounds great but Tim Barkow makes a great point about Python.

    Also, the first thing that pops up in my mind is security… do we really want a large swath of news sites potentially vulnerable to identical threats?

  • Anonymous

    Why couldn’t this be built as a layer on top of WordPress, Drupal, or any of the other extant and open source CMS? What do they gain by starting from scratch? Though I guess they’ve already started, so it’s moot at this point…

  • http://twitter.com/JoeCascio Joe Cascio

    This is a very misleading headline which implies that the grant in question was let to support the use of WordPress as a CMS for news organizations. Upon more careful reading, the grant was given to develop a news-organization CMS using Django, the web app framework for Python.

    This seems logical since Django was developed at a news organization. To quote the Wikipedia entry, “It was originally developed to manage several news-oriented sites for The World Company[3] of Lawrence, Kansas…”

  • http://twitter.com/JoeCascio Joe Cascio

    WordPress, which is great for blogging and low traffic web sites is, I think, a tad too oriented in that direction for a production-grade, highly specific application like news gathering and dissemination. This is not simply a big blog.

    More importantly, Python is much superior language to PHP for such an ambitious undertaking. WordPress, partly owing to being built on PHP is rife with some of the most odious programming hacks known to man. Principal among these are the use of global variables, probably the worst offense against good programming practice that there is.

    I think this grant was placed well. Yes, python programmers may cost more, but that’s because for the most part they’re pros that know what they’re doing.

  • http://twitter.com/JoeCascio Joe Cascio

    WordPress, which is great for blogging and low traffic web sites is, I think, a tad too oriented in that direction for a production-grade, highly specific application like news gathering and dissemination. This is not simply a big blog.

    More importantly, Python is much superior language to PHP for such an ambitious undertaking. WordPress, partly owing to being built on PHP is rife with some of the most odious programming hacks known to man. Principal among these are the use of global variables, probably the worst offense against good programming practice that there is.

    I think this grant was placed well. Yes, python programmers may cost more, but that’s because for the most part they’re pros that know what they’re doing.

  • Anonymous

    Good points, though with plugins like EditFlow and Assignment Desk, WordPress is increasingly capable of newsroom management. I guess more options are a good thing! Just make sure it accepts WordPress XML archives.

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Joshua Benton

    You’re right, Joe — I guess what we were trying to get at is that WordPress has become so popular and so extensively adopted that it’s almost become a generic term for CMS. (We like WordPress here — this site runs on it.)

  • Anonymous

    Python is a excellent language. It’s got a quick learning curve and even first time programmers can understand and code quickly on it. I’m in my second newsroom as a programmer and I see non-geeks learn and use python all the time.

    As far as security threat, I think that’s a non-issue. News sites are most likely already running similar software stacks. If not CMS then the web server(IIS, apache, etc) or OS’s but you don’t see all of them getting hacked.

  • http://twitter.com/OpinionEngine Opinion Engine

    Sounds great, seems part of the problem is local news required to now scale tech barriers, but that’s not core, should be more off the shelf solutions.

    Bottom up/local content doesnt scale, by definition, but is nonetheless needed top down; maybe common platforms can assist distribution. Worked at 140 characters..

  • http://twitter.com/OpinionEngine Opinion Engine

    Sounds great, seems part of the problem is local news required to now scale tech barriers, but that’s not core, should be more off the shelf solutions.

    Bottom up/local content doesnt scale, by definition, but is nonetheless needed top down; maybe common platforms can assist distribution. Worked at 140 characters..

  • http://twitter.com/OpinionEngine Opinion Engine

    Sounds great, seems part of the problem is local news required to now scale tech barriers, but that’s not core, should be more off the shelf solutions.

    Bottom up/local content doesnt scale, by definition, but is nonetheless needed top down; maybe common platforms can assist distribution. Worked at 140 characters..

  • http://twitter.com/OpinionEngine Opinion Engine

    Sounds great, seems part of the problem is local news required to now scale tech barriers, but that’s not core, should be more off the shelf solutions.

    Bottom up/local content doesnt scale, by definition, but is nonetheless needed top down; maybe common platforms can assist distribution. Worked at 140 characters..

  • http://twitter.com/OpinionEngine Opinion Engine

    Sounds great, seems part of the problem is local news required to now scale tech barriers, but that’s not core, should be more off the shelf solutions.

    Bottom up/local content doesnt scale, by definition, but is nonetheless needed top down; maybe common platforms can assist distribution. Worked at 140 characters..

  • http://twitter.com/OpinionEngine Opinion Engine

    Sounds great, seems part of the problem is local news required to now scale tech barriers, but that’s not core, should be more off the shelf solutions.

    Bottom up/local content doesnt scale, by definition, but is nonetheless needed top down; maybe common platforms can assist distribution. Worked at 140 characters..

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  • http://twitter.com/phmadore phmadore

    It’ll be pretty sweet if they make a more user-friendly version of Movable Type with all this. MT just takes WAY too much work on the part of the low-level admin.

  • http://twitter.com/phmadore phmadore

    It’ll be pretty sweet if they make a more user-friendly version of Movable Type with all this. MT just takes WAY too much work on the part of the low-level admin.

  • http://twitter.com/madhavaji Michael Bailey

    Holy cow, you’re re-inventing the wheel.

    The clue is in the title, you already have WordPress! Add in a few well respected plugins and you’d have basically what’s being proposed here.

    I could make this for you for under $10,000.

  • http://twitter.com/madhavaji Michael Bailey

    Holy cow, you’re re-inventing the wheel.

    The clue is in the title, you already have WordPress! Add in a few well respected plugins and you’d have basically what’s being proposed here.

    I could make this for you for under $10,000.

  • http://twitter.com/fluxresearch Flux Research

    I’m not a programmer and haven’t been exposed to Python, I stopped at HTML, but I thought the point of such systems was so that journalists wouldn’t have to become programmers to get their work done.

    So I can’t evaluate whether or not it would have been better to build on Drupal or another CMS from a technical standpoint but it does seem odd that they’re putting all this money into yet another new system, especially after all these grants they’ve given out for various projects that don’t seem to have had a lot of impact.

    Maybe my impressions of their impact are wrong. Anybody out there actually look back at all those tech and related project grants they’ve given to see what became of those projects? I don’t mean a few success stories or a general thumbs up but their impact as a whole on web journalism.

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  • Miguel Paz

    I think it`s a great idea. Any new open source code CMS will make the ecosystem better. WordPress is great in so so many ways, but it has little things you wish it didn`t and that is when you start using frameworks with it. Plug ins, I might add, are not always the solution. When you have a small site running, sure, fill it with plug ins. If it crashes who cares. But when you have a big site wih many simultaneous request you will need clean coding and no more than three plug ins (one always beeing Super Cache). To recap: the more open source CMS, the better.

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  • Odin H. O. / Velmont

    Great stuff! I’m a systems developer in a small newspaper. We’ve got our own custom PHP driven cms, however I’ve used free time during the last years to build a new one with powerful features and really easy customization, so choosing django is easy.

    There’s already Ella CMS, made by a news paper in poland, but it’s not as good as I would like, especially their custom admin. I don’t like that they made a totally new one. Ellington looks sweeet, buty very expensive.

    There was also a cms made for small news organizzzations called penny press. But it moves a bit too slow ahead. I wanted to help in on it, but haven’t gotten that far.

    But this new armstrong sounds nice, maybe this is what we can migrate to. That’d be nice. I’ve shown my half baked cms to some other newspapers, because I also wanted to open source it and get more people working one one system, instead of to each their own. So, crossing my fingers that this one is well built, so I can stop our custom cms.

    Sorry for the errors in my text, disqus doesn’t really seem to work on android, I can’t see my text. Also worth mentioning and to everyone talking about wordpress with plugins, drupal and the like. Yesyes, it works for some, but not when you have real ambitions and would like to customize beyond a certain point. It’s always doable, but the system hinders you and quickly gets in your way… and the ui is really reeally not very good for news organizations.

  • http://www.russellheimlich.com/blog kingkool68

    There are tons of high profile news sites using WordPress as a CMS.

    NPR’s Argo Network -> http://www.npr.org/about/press/2010/090810.Argo.html

    http://www.kqed.org/ -> http://publisherblog.automattic.com/2010/12/09/kqed-publishes-at-the-speed-of-news-with-wordpress/

    http://www.good.is/

    http://pewsocialtrends.org/

    http://stateofthemedia.org/

    And at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what language the CMS is written in as long as there is someone there who knows how to make it do what the organization wants to do.

  • http://www.russellheimlich.com/blog kingkool68

    Here’s a list of tools for journalism using WordPress put together by Greg Linch of the Washington Post https://docs.google.com/present/view?id=dfff6rq5_83sxjxvxcd&pli=1

  • http://www.niemanlab.org/ Joshua Benton

    Not to mention this site, which may not qualify as high profile but which pushes the boundaries of WP in a few ways. We’re currently doing some fun stuff with custom post types that you should see here soon(ish). To me, WP 3.0 and 3.1 are really big steps forward for WP-as-CMS.

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  • Clay Scott

    Now that College Publisher is pricing the small colleges and universities out, will this be applicable for us too?

  • Clay Scott

    Now that College Publisher is pricing the small colleges and universities out, will this be applicable for us too?

  • Clay Scott

    Now that College Publisher is pricing the small colleges and universities out, will this be applicable for us too?

  • http://www.tucsonsentinel.com Dylan Smith/TucsonSentinel.com

    That kind of money could pay for more than 6500 ExpressionEngine licenses.

    Open source isn’t always the best approach, if there are low-cost tools that already do the job. So much of what’s going on in journalism is reinventing the wheel, rather than grinding out great reporting.

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  • Anonymous

    Because what the local newspapers lack is a website?

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