How Technology Agnosticism Fuels Innovation
Ever since the Californian started experimenting with social media after the launch of The Northwest Voice and Bakotopia, we've stayed in close contact with Yelvington and his team at Morris Communications. Very early on, people at both companies noticed that we had similar ideas and approaches to engaging audiences. The differences between the consumer experiences on the Voice, Bakotopia.com and Morris' Blufftontoday.com are very slight.
But there are some very large differences in our back-end technical approaches. Very early on, Yelvington's team started building its social media sites on the open-source Drupal platform. The Californian started its sites first with a vendor, and then partly out of the frustration of that experience, moved in the other direction and began building our own stuff.
There are some good reasons behind this. Compared to Morris, which has 13 daily newspapers, 33 radio stations and magazines in multiple states, the Californian is tiny. When my boss Mary Lou Fulton started the Voice, the Californian didn't have a single software programmer or system administrator on staff. Our complete lack of dedicated technical support staff made modifying an open-source tool difficult. We couldn't do anything on our own and had to rely on vendors and outside contractors to guide many of our decisions.
When I started in 2004, before the Californian had any niche products or technology to speak of, I wasn't satisfied with using vendors and I started playing around with various open source tools. We launched Bakotopia on an open-source platform called Noah's Classifieds. It was a great one-trick-pony platform for simple Craigslist-list style listings, but we wanted to do a lot more than that. In the end we saw that it had to be modified so much that we faced two choices: build a bunch of new functionality around a core to make it do something it wasn't designed to do, or spend an extra month building a new core that was a better fit for our long-term needs.
Before investing in a fully custom solution, we looked at other open-source tools, including Drupal. I liked the way it was structured, but found that it had stability issues and just wasn't all there yet (I used it on my blog for a good 4 months before it crashed and took all of my postings with it). The Californian couldn't wait for the perfect open-source solution to emerge and I didn't want to risk staking the future of this 140-year-old media company on a promising, but at the time still adolescent, technology.
So we started "rolling our own" and, to our amazement, ended up with the award-winning Bakomatic platform. That was the right thing to do at the time, and we will continue to use and enhance the system. It still has some unique functionality and experiences that don't exist in Drupal -- for example, the Inside Guide business directory and a Facebook-like Personal Inbox. And in some respects we can innovate faster with it because we don't have any external dependencies on other projects.
However, we don't have any strong religion about proprietary technology, or any technology for that matter. Whenever a new need comes up we think first about the end-user and specific business goals, and then see how different technology solutions meet those needs. We're technology agnostics.
Printcasting is unique for us in that it needs to work really well in Bakersfield, then be quickly adopted by partners in five other cities, and finally made available to anyone under an open-source license (read more about the three phases of the project).
Building the features on our own proprietary platform was one solution that would have required releasing some or all of our code to the open source community. We briefly considered doing that, but then realized that technology was only half of the picture. We also needed an open-source community. We decided that the project would have a bigger overall impact if it was connected to an existing open-source movement versus trying to start our own competing movement.
Four years after our initial evalutation, Drupal is well out of its adolescence and is an ideal launching pad for almost any social media tool. By making modules for the consumer-facing pieces and tying them into PDF generation on the back end (which by the way would not be done by Drupal, but the end-user will never know or care), we know that thousands of existing Drupal sites, and many more thousands to come, will experiment with what we build. Not only that, they will take what we do and make it better. That's perfectly aligned with the goals of the Knight News Challenge.
Will the Californian use Drupal for more projects? Maybe, or maybe not, depending on the project. We're also now using Ning sites as a low-cost way to serve smaller niche audiences. If they show promise, we invest more resources and move them into our larger network. If not, it's really easy to shut down a Ning site. Ning didn't even exist when we started down the path of social media. In another four years who knows what else will be out there?
Drupal is looking really good now based on our current needs, and it may continue to look good in another four years. But if there's one thing I've learned it's that innovation relies on flexibility and open-mindedness. The minute you put a stake in the ground, you're cutting off your options and your rate of innovation slows down.
One thing that has bothered me since I re-entered the newspaper industry after nearly 7 years away is how it's always looking for one silver bullet. Perhaps that's because the industry relied on one solution (the daily printed newspaper) for its entire existence up until now. But times have changed, and one solution to every problem is no longer feasible.
Innovation requires the opposite of silver-bullet thinking. It's an ever-evolving process that requires constant experimentation, evaluation and change.
Or put another way, feel free to drink someone else's Kool-Aid, but make sure you buy the variety pack. Today's Black Cherry may be tomorrow's Blue-Dini or Purplesaurus Rex.
printcasting, knight news challenge, news innovation