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March 11, 2011, 8 a.m.

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.]

POSTED     March 11, 2011, 8 a.m.
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