Open source software challenges big media

If you look at the traditional media (cable networks, newspapers, radio) coverage of the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and subsequently in Afghanistan and Iraq, you’ll notice they are gradually becoming more and more reliant on reporting from people who are not professional journalists.

This new breed of citizen journalist, the person who blogs, takes photos on their mobile phone and uploads them to a mobLog (mobile weblog), records video, sends it to a video blog and participates in what is commonly becoming known as the “We Media”, relies heavily on Open Source Software, often running on Linux servers.

When CNN temporarily forced one of its journalists, Kevin Sites (http://www.kevinsites.net), to stop blogging from Iraq, a CNN spokesperson said, “CNN.com prefers to take a more structured approach to presenting the news … We do not blog”.

Their tone is one of fear mixed with arrogance, and it’s a response to a problem all traditional media face: if the public is prepared to consider the views of individuals as journalism, how do we keep up a competitive advantage? If anyone can be a reporter, what value-added services can an online newspaper offer to avoid being left in the dust?

Kevin Sites’ blog is powered by PHP (http://www.php.net), powerful and free server software that developers use to create blogging software and distribute it via the Internet.

In most cases, if you look under the hood of a free blogging service, you’ll find PHP, MySQL, Apache and Linux. This is true of most free Content Management Systems (CMS) and most free public forum services — all things that pose the biggest challenges to the media industry.

It seems logical that the traditional media would make plans to incorporate this explosion of personal publishing into their strategies and run with it. The Guardian newspaper in the UK, for instance, has an excellent blogging section for their journalists (http://www.guardian.co.uk/online/weblogs).

Many corporate companies are getting interested in the blogging format to monitor what people are saying about their products online and offer their own perspectives. As an example, Macromedia product developers have their own blogs and Macromedia.com links to them.

However, blogging has been slow to catch on in South Africa and the local traditional media have yet to enter it into their “to do” list. It would seem that while maintaining their online presence with small teams, the traditional media face the same dilemma as many businesses: the cost of software and infrastructure remains a major barrier to entry for the implementation of new technology.

This is usually punctuated by the fears propagated by some large software vendors — who are sounding more and more like life-insurance brokers — about limited availability of skills, no support, etc. for Open Source software.

As a result, they lose market share to people who are not afraid to get their hands dirty, use a free product, and rely on the extensive developer network for advice if something breaks.

In the end, a traditional media player that does not embrace Open Source or, at the very least, does not exclude it completely, will have its hands tied by restrictive licensing fees and fast-moving competition.

A lesson can be learned from the fact that IOL.co.za runs on free software and it’s the busiest news site in South Africa, according to the Online Publisher’s Association.

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