June 11, 2008

Open source journalism system Campsite releases version 3.0

Author: Nathan Willis

Campsite is an open source content management system (CMS) tuned for professional journalists. Like its broadcast radio sibling Campcaster (which we covered last year), Campsite targets independent media operating in emerging democracies and countries in transition. The CMS's latest release, 3.0, is a major update designed to be simpler to install and maintain.

Campsite is a free software project developed by the Media Development Loan Fund (MDLF), a New York-based non-profit organization. The project's name derives from its development hub, MDLF's Center for Advanced Media in Prague (CAMP).

Campsite was launched in 1999, and it has grown in scope and in number of deployments since. The target audience is existing media organizations, in particular those already working in print publications. Campsite is designed to fit into the existing publishing model: multiple authors and editors, issue-based publications, even subscriptions. By following (or at least working with) the same conventions as the print product, Campsite hopes to simplify the management of a simultaneous online edition -- especially for smaller organizations that might not have the IT budget or staff necessary to customize and support a general-purpose CMS like Joomla! or Xaraya.

MDLF's Douglas Arellanes describes the solution as "by journalists, for journalists. Campsite's overall approach was intended to minimize the pain and shock journalists felt when using a CMS. So you don't have the vocabulary of computer scientists, who talk about 'nodes,' 'assets' and 'objects.' Instead you have concepts journalists can easily grasp -- publications, sections, issues and articles, arranged in a way they can easily manage. Your journalists prefer 'story' to 'article'? No problem, go and change it in a few clicks in the built-in localizer tool. And you have out-of-the box support for things journalists find important, like workflow and subscriptions support (either free or paid). We think the function and culture of a newsroom, which has evolved over at least the last century and probably longer, is something that needs to be maintained, albeit online, and our entire aesthetic takes that into account.

"Nothing against the other CMSes out there -- they're very good at what they do, and we recommend and implement them where appropriate.... We've even considered trying to adapt one or more of the other open source CMSes to meet these needs, but we've always found that the investment to make them do what our client organizations needed was too large to justify the effort."

Among Campsite's main selling points for client organizations is that it is pervasively multilingual: not only do the front-end and back-end interfaces support more than a dozen localizations out of the box, but all article content can be managed in multiple translations simultaneously. Individual articles, sections, or entire issues can be provided in multiple languages but managed as one. MDLF claims that Campsite is the only open source CMS that provides this feature. A quick search around the Web reveals several proprietary systems advertising the same feature, all of which require annual licensing fees starting in the four-figure range.

Those expensive proprietary systems are almost exclusively the domain of high-end media, says Arellanes. "By far, we've seen Campsite most often replace custom-built systems. There might have been a couple of instances where Campsite has replaced proprietary commercial systems, but really those systems are being sold to the 'whales' of the news business -- your major international newspapers and news services -- and small independent media organizations in the developing world just aren't on those commercial CMS makers' radar."


Campsite runs on any platform that supports Apache, MySQL, and PHP. A major emphasis for the newly released version 3.0 was simplified installation and maintenance. It features a new, Web-based installer and a completely rewritten template engine and plugin architecture. A number of components that were implemented in C++ in previous versions of Campsite are now PHP modules, making the entire system more portable, and reducing the number of package dependencies. And by using PHP templates only, the system should be easier for organizations to customize.

The active open source development community is another of Campsite's strengths, says Arellanes. "The problem with turnkey systems is that media organizations rarely think past their 1.0 release -- they spend all this time and effort reinventing the wheel with their turnkey system, and then six months down the road when there's interest and demand on the part of their staff and readers for new features, the bosses say, 'Yeah, but we already spent all this money to launch our site and we haven't seen the return on that investment.'

"The worst situations occur when publishers get into terrible business arrangements with local solution providers who provide turnkey sites in return for either advertising trade-outs or joint ventures to manage the paper's Web site. These are usually disastrous for all involved, and we try to make the case both to the papers and the providers that open source -- and Campsite in particular -- is a model that not only gives them a good base to build their news sites from, but it's also a model that lets them spend their tight budgets on creating the features they really want."

MDLF offers paid support services for organizations that wish to purchase it -- with all proceeds going back into Campsite development -- but runs free mailing lists and Web forums too, on which the development team itself participates.

Success stories

You can download source code tarballs of Campsite 3.0 from campware.org; instructions for installation are available in the online manual. But if you just want to test-drive Campsite, it is simpler to visit the live demo running at campsite-demo.campware.org, which permits guest access to the administrative back end as well as the front end.

The project maintains a list of media organizations that use Campsite for production work, which includes more than 70 sites in Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and North and South America.

Arellanes says that Campsite has been particularly successful in the countries of the former Yugoslavia. "One of the bigger organizations to use Campsite is a national news agency called Makfax in Skopje, Macedonia. They started using Campsite during our Media On Web project, and their site is now one of the top-visited sites in the country. The Media On Web team also helped them to provide the headlines for Firefox's Macedonian localization -- they take the place of the BBC headlines button."

Ljuba Rankovic was the leader of Media On Web when Makfax transitioned its site over to Campsite. Before the move, he says, it served 700 pages per day. Now it serves upwards of 15,000, in two separate publications maintained in three languages.

Rankovic develops Campsite publications for commercial and nonprofit clients through the Belgrade-based Media Dots. Its clients, he says, find Campsite's logic an ideal fit, along with its hierarchical content, scheduled publishing options, and flexibility in article types.

"We've been looking forward for Campsite 3.0 for long time and are now very happy to finally have it. It is big step forward for all Campsite users." The elimination of C++ in favor of PHP not only makes coding the sites easier, he adds, but also opens the door to cheaper Web hosting services, thus lowering the cost to the publication.

Although MDLF's mission is to assist media organizations in developing (or transitioning) countries, adds Arellanes, it believes Campsite is a good choice for media in the Western world too. He points to Fluter, based in Berlin, Germany. "Fluter is a project sponsored by the German government's Bundeszentrale fur Politische Bildung [the Federal Agency for Civic Education], which promotes awareness of democracy and education on politics. Fluter was one of their first major forays into online content, and it has turned out to be a pretty big success.

"In fact," he says, "that's a large part of our strategy -- we've provided a good framework for others to build on, and now we are hoping others will begin to 'scratch their own itch' and develop the features they find necessary. In this way we will have been able to provide the organizations we work with far more by using the open source model than we could have by promoting a proprietary approach."


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