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Sept. 17, 2012, 12:30 p.m.
Reporting & Production
Busted computer in the desert

Four reasons why an open-source newsroom is harder than it looks: Lessons from Al Jazeera

Open-source may be hip, but an awful lot of cultural baggage can get in the way of newsrooms adopting it.

Busted computer in the desert

Editor’s Note: Nikki Usher and Seth C. Lewis are academic researchers studying the intersection of journalists and technologists, or “hacks and hackers.” The latest part of their work included Usher’s two-week visit to Doha, Qatar, in June to study how this phenomenon is playing out at Al Jazeera English.

DOHA, Qatar — Open-source software might at first seem easy for a news organization to get behind: It’s owned by no one, improved by everyone, and costs nothing to acquire.

At Al Jazeera, the network’s top voices have advocated open-source for years. Al Jazeera English was an early partner of the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership, now OpenNews. The Drupal-powered live blogs at AJE captured more traffic during the Egyptian uprisings, at times, than the main website. And within the past year, Al Jazeera launched the Drupal-based Al Jazeera Balkans site and plans to use Drupal for the forthcoming Al Jazeera Turkey site.

But after visiting the AJE newsroom this summer, it became apparent the much-heralded open-source movement was a lot more complicated, despite Al Jazeera’s advances. The internal debate at Al Jazeera mirrors what is often a larger conversation about the merits between proprietary and open-source technology. Using Al Jazeera as a case study, we can draw some larger lessons about the challenges facing open-source in the newsroom.

1. Open-source may not be widely understood by the newsroom

As Moeed Ahmad, head of new media for the network, explained to me, open-source is often equated with “hackable” — and not in the good way. At Al Jazeera, hacking is a real concern: Syria launches regular, if not daily, server attacks on Al Jazeera servers, and there are dozens of unfriendly countries and groups that would love to exploit Al Jazeera’s content. Still, as Ahmad noted, “Open-source is quite remarkable…really, if you talk to other people, Windows is not so secure.”

Ahmad and others pointed to the fact that Windows has a long history of hacker malfeasance. Open-source, however, seemed safer in his view because thousands of eyes are patrolling not just for bad code but security holes. Open-source, he argued, might be more secure.

Proponents of open-source in the newsroom also face another misunderstanding: that open-source equals free labor and require zero upkeep. This could lead to a lack of dollars to invest in maintenance and support.

Dick Olsson, the lead (and only) Drupal developer for Al Jazeera English, kept reminding me of the Richard Stallman maxim: “Free as in speech, not as in beer.” There may be no cost to acquire open-source software, but someone has to install and maintain it.

The question, then, becomes whether newsrooms are going to shoulder the necessary operations costs to go open-source, and whether an open-source content-management system offers enough benefits to outweigh running a proprietary system.

As Ahmad and Olsson acknowledged, the costs for both may actually be the same, but the benefits of access to a wider open-source community made them advocates for the newsroom. Despite the supporters at Al Jazeera English, there were no signs the entire site would move to open-source any time soon.

2. Proprietary systems are well-entrenched in newsrooms

At Al Jazeera English, in-house developers have built a proprietary CMS and tinkered with it for the better part of a decade. These are dedicated developers who know every bug in the system. (Talk about job security.) If it ain’t broke, they argue, don’t fix it. And if it is broke, these guys (at Al Jazeera, it’s almost all dudes) know how to fix it. When Nikki spoke to some of them, they resisted the idea of running an open-source CMS in the newsroom.

To them, open-source means leaving “development up to a community who decides when they want to build things for you,” explained one senior developer who did not want to be named to protect his job.

Inside Al Jazeera, there was a team of eight or so developers who had built the CMS from scratch. These developers were attached to their product and convinced that what they had was more finely attuned to the needs of the newsroom.

A CMS change, for better or worse, is a big change for the newsroom, and those who might lead the technical support for switching the entire system had little interest in doing so.

3. Relying on the open-source community for development may not be practical

There are only a few projects running on open-source platforms at Al Jazeera: two Arabic-language projects, Sharek (a citizen sharing site) and Mubasher (a C-SPAN for the Arab world); the live blogs run by Al Jazeera English; an Arab history project; and the Creative Commons news site. Is there enough support for these sites to scale up to something big?

As Olsson explained to me, it’s going to take a lot for Al Jazeera English, for example, to run solely on Drupal.

“For an organization, the open-source community is not sufficient to rely on for support for the long-term return on investment,” he said. “The day-to-day needs are not covered by the community, so more open-source developers are needed in-house for products. In some cases, we use a third-party platform or host. Al Jazeera has to spend money because it doesn’t have enough people in house with LAMP stack competence.”

In his view, there simply weren’t enough resources for Al Jazeera to try to work with open-source full-time. Going outside Al Jazeera would require money, but he’d fall back into the trap of managers who didn’t understand that they had to pay for support because open-source support is not free.

The software developer quoted above complained to me there weren’t enough resources from the open-source community specifically geared toward news. “It’s unpredictable. Those libraries are out there but are for e-commerce, not news.”

During this part of our conversation, some of the Windows-focused software developers asked me to hunt around for examples of open-source CMS elsewhere — that is, a newsroom whose entire content-management system is open-source.

We did but didn’t find very many. The website theopensourcenewspaper.org features Savannah Now, the New York Observer, The Economist, Mother Jones, Fast Company, Slate France, and France 24 (as well as some Scandinavian news organizations we don’t recognize). Notably, France 24’s website has been open-source almost since its inception in 2006 — and it’s a part of the newsroom’s technology-oriented philosophy.

Other examples from mainstream media of open-source include the use of WordPress for blog software at The New York Times, CNN, Reuters, and elsewhere, as well as smaller Tribune Co. properties, including some of the Tribune’s local sites.

It remains an open question whether there are indeed enough resources for developers to reliably build on existing open-source news platforms. The Knight-Mozilla OpenNews challenge has created buzz about open-source and news, but are there really enough casual developers who care to engage with open-source journalism development?

4. There might simply not be the talent — or the culture

Ahmad was sad to report he had trouble persuading anyone at DrupalCon to take advantage of the tax-free palm-tree life in Doha. In the Middle East, especially, the culture of open-source has been shunned in favor of proprietary systems, according to Ahmad, Olsson, and others. In Jordan and Tunisia, the open-source friendly Hacks/Hackers even goes by another name, Media Innovation Initiative, in part because open-source and hacking carry such negative connotations. In Doha and other parts of the Middle East, it might be impossible to find open-source programmers to work for news organizations.

This leads me to think about the backchannel gossip that newsrooms, aside from the big fancy ones, can’t find enough programmer-journalists — let alone get people into their newsrooms to work on open-source. Olsson wasn’t drawn to Al Jazeera because it was a news site: “I came here for the Drupal challenge,” he told me. One wonders if there are enough talented open-source developers who want to work for newsrooms even outside the context of the Middle East.

At Al Jazeera, there were a lot of good arguments from people about why open-source would be beneficial to their newsroom — from security to prototyping to the value of the open-source community. We know these arguments. But it’s important to step back and think about why open-source might be harder than the hype might suggest.

Photo of a busted computer in the desert by Jasson Steffan used under a Creative Commons license

POSTED     Sept. 17, 2012, 12:30 p.m.
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