January 4, 2012

Sourcefabric, the Open Source Newsroom

The non-profit Sourcefabric builds digital open source newsrooms to support quality, independent journalism. Traditional news organizations have taken a major beating from the Internet, but the Internet has also created opportunities for a free press in countries that have never had one before, and Sourcefabric is part of journalism's path to the future.

What is Journalism Anymore?

Two of my favorite quotations are "Freedom of the press belongs to those who own one" (A.J. Liebling), and "Money changes everything" (Cyndi Lauper and Tom Gray).

Tie these together with the Golden Rule, "the one with the gold makes the rules" and the struggles and turmoil of modern journalism come into sharp focus. It's a different game now as print news has drastically declined, TV news is limping along in a stale 40-year old format and inexplicably tries to replicate this moldy experience on the Web, and we get our news from a multitude of non-journalism sources like Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter.

Online news publishing should be a great boon because the cost of distribution is low, and the reach is Internet-wide. But the business model is difficult because users don't pay; it is primarily advertiser-supported and enslaved to SEO (search engine optimization) voodoo, which means Google is the giant tail wagging the publishing industry dog. News publications get paid for driving traffic, rather than for publishing good quality material.

Change is a multi-edged device, and while the Internet and high tech have damaged traditional news organizations (think buggy whips), they have also lowered the barriers to entry and widened journalism's scope. Digital photographs, videos, and audio streams are considerably easier to edit, produce, and distribute than in the olden ways. Journalists are truly mobile and news publishers are not tied to a physical location, or to large investments in printing presses and broadcast studios.

So it's a different world now, and potentially a better one because independent and non-profit news organizations can compete with the establishment mainstream press (what's left of it), and fill niches that the traditional news organizations are not interested in. Like working weekends and holidays, breaking news as soon as it's ready in multiple formats and media, and covering important topics that may not please advertisers but are of interest to readers and viewers.

Real journalism is more than sitting down to a WordPress blog and emitting deep thoughts. It is a skilled profession, and it has always been a technology-dependent business. It may not be apparent to the reader, viewer, or listener of news, but putting a story together and then publishing it is a complicated, labor-intensive process. This is where Sourcefabric comes in.


Sourcefabric is still a young project. You may have heard of the Campware (Center for Advanced Media-Prague) suite of news and content management software; Campware was created in 2005, and then spun off as an independent organization, Sourcefabric, in April 2010. Campware was originally created by the Media Development Loan Fund. The MDLF has been around since 1995, a "a mission-driven investment fund for independent news outlets in countries with a history of media oppression."

Sourcefabric provides software, hosting services, and training. Currently there are three main software applications: Airtime, Newscoop, and Superdesk. Each one plays a different role in gathering and publishing news, so let's take them for a spin.


Airtime is for managing an Internet radio station. It runs on Apache, PostgreSQL, PHP, the RabbitMQ messaging system, and a whole lot of other good FOSS. It has a one-click installation on Debian and Ubuntu, and can be installed on pretty much any Linux distro. You can also try out a live demo, which is an excellent way to get acquainted with Airtime. You can upload your own audio, create playlists, and schedule and listen to your own programming. Its browser-based interface lets you control it from any computer anywhere (figure 1).

 A new Airtime installation waiting for audio files and scheduling.

Airtime supports streams from your own server, and also Icecast and Shoutcast, and has an fallback function that switches to a live stream if it fails for any reason. You can play MP3 or Ogg files, customize the interface, and add the Mixxx live DJ software for additional functionality like managing live broadcasts. Airtime is the most mature Sourcefabric application, and the average Linux nerd won't have any trouble getting it up and running.

The hardest part is learning audio production if you don't already know how to do that: how to record, edit, and optimize audio streams for broadcast. There are other great FOSS applications for this like Audacity and Ardour.

Airtime has nice user management; you can allocate time slots to different people and then they manage their own slots. It has some JQuery widgets that automatically update a Web calendar for your users, and creates searchable archives.

Airtime is a free download, and the Pro version adds hosting and support, ranging from $50 to $500. You can also purchase custom services if the prefab deals don't meet your needs.


Newscoop is an open content management system specialized for journalists and newspapers. Like Airtime, it runs on a LAMP stack and requires a bit of work to install and configure. Here be good detailed installation instructions.

Newscoop manages the online text article publication process, and has a modular dashboard (figure 2) that shows scheduling, article status, and other information on one page. It follows the traditional print publishing layout model, with different sections (News, Arts, Politics, and such), and modern features such as commenting, RSS feeds, multimedia, and subscription services.

 The Newscoop Dashboard displays all the publication status information you want in one view.

It has a caching module to speed up page delivery, and it automatically tailors the presentation for different browsers on different devices. It includes SEO (search engine optimization) tools, multi-language support, and geolocation support for customizing content delivery by location. Newscoop has support for OpenStreetMap, Google Maps, and Mapquest Open. It is theme-able, and has a live demo to play with.


Airtime and Newscoop manage online broadcasting and publication. Superdesk manages the story creation workflow. A story might pass through several hands before it's ready for publication: assignment editor, reporter, a second contributor, photographer, copy editor, editor.

Superdesk has a customizable workflow for tracking and editing content. It outputs content in formats that are compatible with external design software such as Adobe InDesign and InCopy. It uses calendars and notifications so you can store information for future stories, and then be reminded when the time comes. Superdesk pulls together news from RSS feeds, social network sites, and wherever else you want. And it has business tools such as sales trackers, classified ad builder, and order tracking. Superdesk is scheduled to be released sometime in 2012, and you can see the source code at the Sourcefabric Wiki (free registration required.)

The essence of journalism has not changed: gathering and reporting news. Sourcefabric provides modern tools for independent journalism, and free/open source software makes projects like Sourcefabric possible.

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