For the last couple of weeks I've been too busy to blog much. We're working to build the next-generation newspaper website management system. We have an October deadline, which seems a long way off, but it's not. There's a lot of work to do, including complete site redesigns. We're doing this simultaneously for two newspapers that are 1,200 miles apart, and the closest is almost five hours away from our office. And I'm going to India for two weeks in September. I want to see it largely completed before I drop off the grid.I've been through many content management system implementations. This one is different in several key ways:
- We've adopted open-source development practices, with open communication and collaboration. At this point it's almost entirely inside Morris Communications, but (shockingly, perhaps) it's the first time developers who work at our newspapers have really collaborated with developers who work at the corporate headquarters. Sad, but true: We tend to work in our own little worlds.
- We've pledged to release our code, templates and configurations under the open-source GPL license. This means others will be able to follow our path with much less time and effort.
- We're inviting people from outside the to join in the process. I don't expect much on that front in the next few weeks, as we're pretty much in "busy, don't bother" mode, but over the long haul I think Brian Eno was right: "Every collaboration helps you grow."
We're basing our work on the Drupal platform, which we've previously used mostly for community interaction. In 2005, we built Bluffton Today on Drupal, focusing the site entirely on community blogging. In 2006, we relaunched SavannahNow on Drupal, adding newspaper content to the mix. Since then we've built dozens of community blogging sites for our newspapers, as well as radio station websites, Skirt.com (21 cities so far) and WhereTraveler.com (40 cities so far). This time around, we're going into some new territory. We're integrating a lot more social-networking functionality, which we think is an important tool for addressing the "low frequency" problem that most news sites face. We're going to be aggressive aggregators, pulling in RSS feeds from every community resource we can find, and giving our users the ability to vote the results up/down. We'll link heavily to all the sources, including "competitors."Ranking/rating, commenting, and RSS feeds will be ubiquitous. Users of Twitter, Pownce and Friendfeed will be able to follow topics of interest.We're also experimenting with collaborative filtering, something I've been interested in since I met the developers of GroupLens in the mid-1990s. It's how Amazon offers you books and products that interest you: People whose behavior is the most like yours have looked at/bought/recommended this other thing. It's a difficult concept to apply to news, but if you rank/rate news and blog items on our websites, we hope to offer you links to other items highly rated by people who are most like you. Some of the improvements will be entirely internal. I'm especially excited about a tool that will allow editors to make arbitrary layout changes to key pages without knowing any HTML, and a "dayparting" module that can automatically publish new homepage layouts that are prepared in advance. Our newspapers are aggressively switching to a 24/7 news model, and reporters will be able to post stories, photos and video directly from the field with a laptop and a broadband card.A lot of people wonder why anybody would give away something that's good. But there's a whole "gift economy" that's evolved around software. Companies make money by offering valuable services while taking advantage of shared capabilities. The GPL, which is the software license used by many such projects, requires that you provide source code so that others can modify and improve your work. Derivative works fall under the same license. This is the "common wealth" in action.But is it any good? If you use the Internet, you use open source software. If you're looking at a Web page, it probably was served by Apache, perhaps from a MySQL database and through an open-source application such as Drupal. Google? Linux and Python. Yahoo? FreeBSD, Linux, PHP. AdSense? It wouldn't run without MySQL. Internet startups tend to be very smart about open-source tools. Newspapers? Not so much. But it's time to change our thinking about a lot of things, and this is one of them.