Nieman Lab on Journalism and Open Source

Nieman Lab – far and away the best resource for tracking the evolution of journalism – has a good post up the Knight-Mozilla News Technology Partnership, and on what lessons journalism can learn from open source. Overall it’s characteristally excellent, but I have to take issue with this:

Finding 4:
* Open-source development is collaborative, free, and flexible.
* Producing news costs money, and open source may not get to the heart of journalism’s business problems.

Open-source software development is premised on the idea of coders working together, for free, without seeking to make a profit at the expense of someone else’s intellectual property. Bit by bit, this labor is rewarded by the creation of sophisticated programming languages, better-and-better software, and the like.

But there’s a problem: Journalism can’t run on an open source model alone. Open source doesn’t give journalism any guidance for how to harness a business model that pays for the news.

I think this ignores the rich mixture of motivations, business models, etc. that comprise the open source movement. Take the line “Producing news costs money.” Someone might say the same about software. Doesn’t producing software cost money? Well, the history of open source tells us, basically, not always in the ways you would think. The big shift for the software community has been to question very basic assumptions like “producing software costs money” or “producing software requires organization by firms.” For journalism to truly adopt the lessons of open source software, it must question those basic assumptions as well.

Well, ok, fine. But at the end of the day doesn’t producing news cost money? Sure. But even here it seems that the Nieman summary is missing an appreciation for the richness of the open source model. Specifically, the line “Open source doesn’t give journalism any guidance for how to harness a business model that pays for the news” ignores the great number of for profit entities operating in the open source software space. Companies like IBM and Red Hat play a huge role in the development in open source software because their involvement brings strategic and financial benefits. Coders in the employ of companies like IBM are crucial to the development of open source projects like Linux; it is a mistake to ignore these contributors when thinking about open source. And Red Hat operates on a service model, making it easier for customers to successfully adopt open source software in their businesses.

Maybe these sorts of arrangements transfer into the journalism space and maybe they don’t. But to act as if open source software offers no lessons on how to make money is to ignore a significant piece of the open source landscape.