The plot thickens

On my argument against College Publisher, and for an open source coalition of student newspapers, Brad Arendt of The Arbiter presents several good points about the advantages of using College Publisher.  Considering the time he took writing a well-detailed comment, I thought I would clarify on a several things I think he missed.

First, I think student newspapers should actively work on developing 1 or 2 alternatives to CP. This may not mean collaboratively building a CMS from scratch, rather it’s more likely to be facilitating a developer ecosystem specific to our needs around common platforms. For anyone familiar with WordPress, which I’ve helped implement for the Whitman Pioneer and most recently, Oregon Direct Action (which is a work in progress), it’s strength is an abundance of plugins and themes you can add to your install. A developer ecosystem is important for continued innovation and, as far as I can tell, CP doesn’t have one.

Cost is certainly an issue. Both CP and WordPress, Django, or Drupal are “free,” but the critical difference is that CP comes working out of the box for student newspapers and the others require a developer. One stated goal is to have an open source alternative that can be quickly up and running with full functionality. If the paper has resources to develop their platform beyond point, they would be able to do so with the support of other developers across the country. This platform would also be available to local papers, although that is not the intended market. Furthermore, I do see a business model in this, in a very Ubuntu and WordPress-esque fashion.

Quoting Brad,

There are some rather innovative and creative things which the CP4.0 system does offer. I would not say it limits creativity, rather it is the students you have on staff who know what to do with the tools that limits your creativity more than CP4.0. The Daily Pennsylvanian has done some very creative stuff in the LAMP environment, which is open source. The Daily Tar Heel has also figured out an interesting work around for blogs, granted done via WordPress but the 4.0 system and the students figured out how to “fit” it in.

Personally, I think arguing that College Publisher allows for innovation is completely erroneous. LAMP, which means Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP, is an open source stack and doesn’t stand for anything specific. I don’t mean to discount your example, I’m just not sure how you mean to imply CP is innovative by allowing hacking outside the platform. Furthermore, any server environment should allow working with and around the software running on it. Allowing WordPress to be installed as a blogging platform is not a sellable strength of College Publisher

Brian also mentions that CP does provide backups of your site for the scenario in which it disappears.  Unfortunately, these, I imagine, are only backups of your data, not the content management system your data is living in. If your site were to go down, you would have to install and develop an alternative CMS, as well as port your database, before you have a live site.  You shouldn’t have to completely rebuild your website if College Publisher disappears.  When the web presence becomes the only presence, having your site suddenly not exist would have very real consequences.

One case against College Publisher

When you control the platform, you also control the content and innovation associated with it.

In the school news industry, College Publisher, now branded as the College Media Network, desperately needs a competitor. Owned by MTV, a subsidiary of Viacom, College Publisher provides a content management system now used by “550 going on 600” student newspapers across the country. It offers under-staffed and under-funded newsrooms an easy way to get their content online at a price that can’t be beat.  

Why is Viacom interested in managing the online platforms for as many college newspapers as possible? To deliver advertising, of course. As a part of the contract for a cheap, if not free, way to get your stories and images online, College Publisher reserves the top placements on your site for their own use. This allows an even bigger media giant (Viacom) to directly make money off a school newspaper’s content, either by selling advertising slots to big corporations like T-Mobile and Bank of America or by running advertisements for their other properties. Student newspapers are especially valuable to Viacom because they largely produce for its key demographic: the college student. Most, too, are held captive to this partnership because there isn’t the motivation, manpower, or vision for more innovative options.

Should any independent student newspaper want in a part of this? No.

College Publisher, unfortunately, is not the innovation aspiring journalists and reporters should depend on in this changing media environment. Claiming RateMyProfessors.com and a CMN Facebook app are “national media outlets” is not creativity. Rather than outsourcing the heavy-lifting to College Publisher, student newspapers need to allocate resources internally to running and developing their own platform. This can seem somewhat paradoxical, adding to your staff when you’re losing more and more revenue, but it is a necessity for survival. The future isn’t all that bleak, we’re just in a time of transition.

At Publishing 2.0, Scott Karp argues that newspapers need to take a hint from General Motors and learn how to innovate. Most newspapers have had roughly the same business model since the 1950’s which they’re now largely attempting to reapply to the internet. It’s not the same medium, though. Advertising and classifieds were king in past years, but the playing field is now open to the most ambitious entrepreneurs. Maybe a model like Spot.us will succeed, maybe it won’t. Without trying new things, there’s no way to find out.

Part of the innovation that has to happen, I would like to add, is how you manage, display, and distribute your content online. For student newspapers, the solution isn’t College Publisher. It’s too restrictive, poorly developed, and proprietary, locking innovative students to a platform that limits creativity. Page load times are atrocious because of far too much Javascript, and if they go out of business, your website goes down. The answer, instead, is open source.

One component of a strategy for student newspapers to move forward is a consortium dedicated to collaboratively building an open source content management system which best fits everyone’s needs. We need a robust, free to use platform that thrives under many of the same values which the open source movement holds dear. The growth of such a community around the publishing software used by student newspapers would be of tremendous value to everyone, especially because most papers aren’t in competing markets. Collaborative innovation is a win-win for these types of organizations, a fact I think few have realized.

As the start for a transition I hope to begin with the Oregon Daily Emerald in the winter, I’m taking steps forward. At this point, my work involves researching mature platforms already in the ecosystem, such as WordPress, Drupal, and Django, contacting people at what I think are progressive school newspapers, and working to identify the crucial features for any online newsroom (like managing media assets and placing advertisements). While I recognize there are already many content management systems on the market, my paradoxical goal is for a platform as easy to use and install as WordPress that also offers advanced management features. Software that any student newspaper can install, but also be able to develop further if they have the resources to do so.

I’m passionate about making this happen. Let’s do it.

Ironically, the College Media Network blog runs WordPress. They obviously aren’t drinking their own Kool-Aid.

Components of an open-source organization: Part one

This is the first in what I hope to be a series of articles on applying the concept of “open-source” to a non-profit organization.

A month or so ago, I was hit with the notion that the open-source movement might be applicable to systems beyond software. What I quickly realised, much like when I “invented” the word guesstimate, is that someone had probably already thought of this idea. Undaunted, I began to brainstorm on how I might apply it to an organization I’m working with called Whitman Direct Action, primarily because I feel the concept behind the organization itself is revolutionary and could prove to be a useful model for other colleges and universities to build upon.

For those who are not well-versed in open-source’s history, the philosophy could be argued to have gone pop culture with Linux, a free-to-use and distribute operating system licensed under the GNU Public License. The idea of free software had existed long before Linus Torvald started working on his operating system but, from my uneducated viewpoint, that’s when it began to go mainstream. At present, Linux has become the dominant operating system for many of the internet’s web servers, and a popular distro called Ubuntu is rapidly gaining popularity as a free and open alternative to Microsoft’s proprietary Windows operating system. Unless the trend changes, and again from my viewpoint, open-source architecture will continue moving broadening its marketshare because of the speed at which intellectual property now moves across the internet, as well as the apparent mutual advantages to people who collaborate on open-source projects.

This change in scenery is also apparent with the rapid rise of Wikipedia, a system that encourages adapting and building upon intellectual material. Wikipedia, for those who have been living under a rock for the past few years, is “the free dictionary” where anyone can edit and improve upon its articles. It relies on the collective intelligence of the masses, something normally believed to be inferior to a professional editor. However, a recent study found the Encyclopaedia Britannica had just a small percentage less errors per article than the seven year-old Wikipedia. Considering Wikipedia now has 8.29 million articles in 253 languages compared to the Britannica’s 29 print volumes, it’s no stretch to say the writing is on the wall.

Open-source is a tricky concept to explain to people who have little to no experience with programming. For those beginners, the term “source” refers to the structure of commands which lie behind any digitally created object and “open” implies that the code is free to use and distribute. Take, for instance, the construction of an automobile. Most cars and trucks have, among other things, an engine, a drivetrain, and a way to control the vehicle, sometimes called the wheel, gas pedal, and brake. Those systems are parallel conceptually to code in the digital world because they are the means to an end. They determine the overall output of the product. When you apply open-source to a car or truck, this means that the parts, or information to create the parts, is to be freely used and distributed. If person B wants to improve upon person A’s automobile, they would be free to copy and adapt person A’s orginal designs. Of course, persons C and A could then have access to the adaptations as well. In fact, a system like the one illustrated is beginning to take place in China. Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams’ Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything documents how businessmen in China have opted to open-source the designs of their motorcycles to cut down on the costs associated with developing intellectual property. Working together is now becoming a very smart business decision.

In another example, this piece of writing is being published by the open-source blogging software WordPress, and some of its research has been done on Wikipedia. The list goes on.

Jumping the fence from open-sourcing intellectual property such as code and blueprints to the functional structure of an organization has only recently become possible; thanks for the ability to do this goes to the spreading ubiquity of the internet, and the brilliant tools some companies are building on top of it. An open-source organization is one which seeks to become completely transparent to the public, meaning that any or all of its processes are easily visible and adaptable.

With Whitman Direct Action, or at least initially, we hope to:

  • Podcast all and any of our staff meetings or phone calls
  • Transform the departamental update emails into blog posts, and encourage interstaff discussion in the form of comments
  • Make our financial strategies and budget freely available online
  • License applicable content through Creative Commons
  • Actively seek feedback from the community on any aspect of our organization, and make that conversation open to anyone

The driving philosophy, of course, is to make our organization “open-source” in the same sense of any software code: free to use, distribute, or modify.