Of all the many changes at TheNation.com, the one you won’t readily detect is the technology underlying the new site – the open source content management platform "Drupal." With redesigns, readers naturally focus on the "front-end," (did the colors change? are there new features?) but the real innovations are often in the "back-end," the platform, or language, that runs the site. In this case, the "back end" is an important part of the story, as The Nation opted to use a technology that also makes a political statement.
"Open source" software code is published and made freely available to the public, enabling anyone to copy, modify and redistribute it without paying or earning royalties or fees. It’s like a song that a musician can sample or remix for free. This creates a community of global web programmers who can share and improve the platform. The idea is rooted in community: One person creates, another person improves, and the knowledge is widely shared. If he understood open source, Glenn Beck might well denounce it as a socialist practice.
Open source as a concept goes beyond software. Its political analogy, "open politics," reflects core values which The Nation has long advocated: government that is transparent, open and rooted in the public interest.
Applied to political organizing, co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum and former Nation editor Micah Sifry summarized in a 2004 Nation article, "open source would mean opening up participation in planning and implementation to the community, letting competing actors evaluate the value of your plans and actions, being able to shift resources away from bad plans and bad planners and toward better ones, and expecting more of participants in return. It would mean moving away from egocentric organizations and toward network-centric organizing."
This past February a "good government" manifesto in The Nation by Lawrence Lessig, author of the book Free Culture expanded on the idea of open politics, and for three years The Nation‘s Net Movement correspondent Ari Melber has reported on the intersection of technology and transparency in government.
The specific platform we’re using for TheNation.com, Drupal, has a progressive lineage as well. Described as "Software to Power the Left" by new media thinker David Cohn, Drupal was the foundation for the groundbreaking "DeanSpace" online community in 2004, and has since been used and improved by dozens of leading progressive advocacy groups. Today Drupal powers the websites of publications like The New Republic, Mother Jones and The Economist, and provides the content management platform for a little site called WhiteHouse.gov. (The decision for The White House to go open source was controversial – Nancy Scola of Tech President had a good post detailing why it was such a powerful statement.)
What, if anything, does this mean for TheNation.com readers? The great thing about Drupal for a news organization is the flexibility that a public, continuously evolving platform provides. If we wanted to build an interactive package to amplify a groundbreaking investigation, it used to take days. Now there are thousands of programmers who can build it fast – or have already built it. If we want to change the layout of our homepage or special section to reflect the significance of an unanticipated breaking news event, it used to take three weeks. Now it takes three clicks.
And, beyond the practical and technological benefits, going open source was a political act for The Nation — an embrace of transparency and community. We hope that others will choose it too.
Watch this short video for a succinct introduction to Drupal and the notion of an open-source community and let us know what you think of our new website in the blog’s comments field or firstname.lastname@example.org.