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.

Yemen Times publisher and editor-in-chief Nadia al-Sakkaf holds a Masters in Information Science Management, the organization prides itself on delivering what al-Sakkaf has called “news in a neutral and professional way,” and it had reporters on the ground in several cities. But, after a serious loss of some of the organization’s digital news archive during this time, the site was taken offline.

West Africa Democracy Radio

On a pro-bono basis, Sourcefabric then worked with Yemen Times to build a new platform. In addition to having a more efficient CMS to “keep them in business,” Thomas recalled, the Times was able to make its news archive, the largest in Yemen, available online for its users. The Times also is using Airtime to broadcast radio online, with plans to develop that country’s first independent FM station.

Another success: West Africa Democracy Radio. Thomas described the station, based in Senegal, as “a magnifying glass” that makes West Africa visible throughout the world. The station, he said, broadcasts on FM via satellite across West Africa, uses Newscoop and Airtime, and has more than 80,000 followers via SoundCloud, a leading sound platform for distributing audio and radio worldwide over the Net.

Thomas said that the size of WADR’s audience on SoundCloud “is close to NPR’s and bigger than the BBC.” In 1998, WADR received an award from the Knight Foundation for innovative journalism.

The WADR Team in Senegal.jpg
The team at West Africa Democracy Radio in Senegal

Next Up: Superdesk

When the President of the Ivory Coast, Laurent Gbagbo, was arrested in 2011 after he refused to yield power to his internationally-recognized political opponent, and, at the same time, there was political unrest in Nigeria and Mali selected the first woman to become Prime Minister, people were hungry for reliable information – and WADR served as a major source of news.

In Brazil, a news organization called Brasil 247 uses Newscoop for its website and, Thomas said, receives about 55 million page views monthly, making it the largest online news publication in that country. The Web CMS allows workers to report and edit remotely, as the organization has no central office. Thomas said the tools are also used in developed countries by “young journalists who are fed up with big news organizations,” such as groups in Switzerland, Germany and, particularly for Airtime, in the U.S.

Having laid the foundation with nuts-and-bolts software, Sourcefabric is now setting its sights on a bigger prize. Later this year, it expects to release Superdesk, a newsroom management software platform that covers the spectrum from ingest, to news feeds, and through citizen reporting and output to various formats. Thomas said Superdesk’s “create once, publish anywhere approach” could process content not only for news sites, but for print, radio or TV shows -- any format that a spunky and independent news organization, trying to show its country what free journalism looks like, could want.