For most people, a web content management system (Web CMS) is a tool for the day-to-day chores of running a website. For Sourcefabric, a non-profit organization based in Prague, a Web CMS is a weapon for press freedom. Recently, spoke to Sourcefabric’s head of communications, Adam Thomas, about his organization’s efforts to support the 21st century version of the small printing press. 

Sourcefabric began its organizational life in 1998 as the technical arm of the Media Development Loan Fund, which was designed to loan money in support of free press efforts in countries moving from dictatorship to democracy, including outfits in Africa, Guatemala and other Latin American countries, and the former USSR republics.

In 2010, the unit received major new funding for the purpose of creating open source tools, and it spun off into a non-profit known as Sourcefabric. At that time, it employed about a dozen people. Today, about five dozen people work for the organization. In addition to funding by foundations and individuals, Sourcefabric is increasingly receiving income from add-on services such as hosting versions of its software, and from customization.

Websites, Radio, Books

“Our vision is that these open source tools can bring about change,” said Thomas, an Englishman based at the organization’s branch office in Berlin. The aim, he said, is to “help anyone start a radio station or a news site,” with a focus on places that “are not accustomed to competing stations” or sites.

The tools are intended to “enable them to practice journalism,” Thomas said. They now include Newscoop software for online news sites, Airtime for radio automation, Booktype for print digital books, and, sometime later this year, a complete open source digital workflow solution for newsrooms called Superdesk. All are available for free on SourceForge, and come with extensive documentation.

Sourcefabric’s software development is driven by the needs of groups in these developing regions. One example: the Net Gazeti news organization in the former Soviet republic of Georgia wanted better search for its site. The country ranks 105th out of 179 countries in Reporters Without Borders’ World Press Freedom Index, and there are few outlets there that are not controlled by the government or their allies.

The Yemen Times

Sourcefabric worked with Net Gazeti in developing version 4.1 of Newscoop CMS, which integrated with the open source search engine Solr, better enabled the site to scale up, and offered the ability to add new article types.

Take Yemen in 2011. The Arab Spring was roaring in that country, and the Yemen Times, which Thomas described as “the first and most widely ready independent English-language paper” in that country, was using a “cranky old custom-built CMS” for a website that kept going down.