The Past and Future of Open News Publishing – Pt One

photo borrowed from raginggrannies.tumblr.com

Open Publishing is big news. So big, in fact that I’m going to give it capital letters sometimes.

At the moment I read a lot of technology articles about Open Publishing as it relates to publishing printed books. This is because I’m involved in the Flossmanuals project which promotes a working process which can ‘go from 0 to book in 2-5 days’. There is plenty more information about flossmanuals on this site here.

I read less about the kind of Open Publishing which first got me interested. Open Publishing of news content. Specifically the Indymedia project which began using and promoting this concept back in 1999.I want to write down some of my thoughts on Open News Publishing. Here’s part one of that. I really invite your comments and feedback.

I want to look a little at how these ideas were first presented in relation to the Free Software movement, how they evolved into working practices for the UK Indymedia group both positive and negative and take in future articles take some guesses of what the future of Open News Publishing using new technologies might look like.

Opening the Box

graffitti homage to a cat@lyst member

There is some interesting general history here about Indymedia on the Indybay website,. One of the confusing thinga about Indymedia is that it was an amalgamation of many different things, temporary physical media centres, new recording technology, an ad-hoc network of young radical server admins, a movement building tool, an informal, virtual and real life participatory education project. Open news publishing was only a part of this whole thing, itwas however the key new ingredient that the other more traditional aspects of media production and movement building clustered around.

To get a bit more background information on how this concept begain to present itself to the world it is worth reading this article on open publishing by Maffew one of the Cat@lyst team from Australia who produced the first Indymedia Publishing system.It has this working definition of open publishing (which clearly looks at open publishing of news)

A working definition of open publishing

Open publishing means that the process of creating news is transparent to the readers. They can contribute a story and see it instantly appear in the pool of stories publicly available. Those stories are filtered as little as possible to help the readers find the stories they want. Readers can see editorial decisions being made by others. They can see how to get involved and help make editorial decisions. If they can think of a better way for the software to help shape editorial decisions, they can copy the software because it is free and change it and start their own site. If they want to redistribute the news, they can, preferably on an open publishing site.

Early Open News Publishing Technology and Process

I just want to describe this really quickly. The Indymedia site that that Catalyst team worked on ran  using a CMS called Active. This was originally set up display a simple running newswire of published posts. There was practically no editorial decisions to be made apart from let’s hide that article as it’s clearly racist or homophobic etc.

Those few editorial decisions took place on an open email list. Anyone could read the archives of those decisions and if they fancied it, anyone could join the email list and contribute to. the discussion.

Looking back on it you may wonder why this didn’t immediately degenerate into chaos with various factions of differing opinions fighting it out to get their own way. Er well it did kind of but it also became a hugely popular and widely adopted model.

The explosive growth of Open Publishing

It is fair to say that the Indymedia project was quite successful in spreading this working practice and tool set;

The Indymedia project was started in late November of 1999, to allow participants in the anti-globalization movement to report on the protests against the WTO meeting that took place in Seattle, Washington, and to act as an alternative media source. By 2002, there were 89 local IMCs around the world spread between 31 countries (plus the West Bank) and 6 continents.

Hey lok we even had our own Uniform

One of the reasons for the growth was the quick formation of a spontaneous network of server admins who were active in offering support to groups who wished to set up Indymedia sites.

Another was the will to spread this media quickly and a atmosphere of trust and good will rather than slow moving process driven bureaucracy. It was an ad-hoc tech solution for an ad-hoc global ‘movement of movements’. This felt right at the time and for those involved in this process it was a very welcoming and exciting project to be involved with.

This federation and shared publicity worked very well as a way of driving readers to your site. If you set up an Indymedia site in your town you got readers very quickly without having to do a lot of publicity because so much outreach was being done everywhere in the network.

To deal with some of the issues that cropped up around the abuse of the Indymedia name a process grew. This addressed and made more formal some of the issues to do with the concepts of open publishing. This process is called the new IMC process and there is some interesting and detailed reading which is the outcome of many disputes there. Here is a quote from that web page.

The strength of the IMC as a concept comes directly from its organizational structure; namely, a decentralized network of autonomous collectives ….

However…… it is necessary to resist any efforts by a local collective, for example, that wishes to develop a non-participatory, top-down structure, or would like to create a corporation out of a local IMC. To this end, we have developed guidelines for network participation in the form of two crucial documents: the PrinciplesOfUnity and the MembershipCriteria.

Developing Collaborative Processes

Working together locally

Editorial Collectives were normally formed around cities this allowed them to undertake the outreach and public meetings required by the IMC membership criteria.

Be the media dislay at Glastonbury

The public meetings were also a chance to build real life understanding between individuals which make online collaboration easier. There have been many disputes in the history of online communication and decision making. The ability to meet regularly in person helps to disperse entrenched opposition between individuals.

Another aspect of working together locally was organising film screening nights, social events and fund raising. This was a really key element of building a strong community and grass roots level of awareness and support for the project.

Online Editorial Collaboration

I want to look at the example of the editorial London IMC collective which then opened up to be come a wider UK based collective. These are my perspectives as a sometime participant in some of the activities of the network but not really as part of an editorial collective. All of the email lists discussions are archived and online imc-uk-features (http://lists.indymedia.org/pipermail/imc-uk-features/) & http://archives.lists.indymedia.org/imc-uk-features/

Indymedia at Drax Climate Camp

I was really happy at that time to be partly involved in that process and to invite others to become involved in it. It felt like a supportive place where collaboration and debate were encouraged and there were not entrenched right or wrong positions. We can see collaboration happening in various ways .

  •  Suggest ‘features’, which are short summaries linking to other articles on the newswire or elsewhere as a way ot highlight the work of othere
  •  Submitting text of features to a email list to see if others want to submit additional information or offer revisions
  •  Giving positive feedback and encouragement
  •  Offering critique or expressing objections in a non-confrontational way that invites an open discussion

I think if you read through the archives of the email lists, just taking a sample year by year then I think that it is clear that this atmosphere deteriorates. There is more conflict and a less supportive environment and one less suited to collaboration.

I think it is worth looking back and seeing why this is. But I am not going to do this now.  If you have opinions on this I would love it if you could add a comment to this article.

Collaborating to create mobile Indymedia Centres

Rural Media Centres presented other challenges

Mobile Indymedia centres sprung up around larger events in the calendar of the International finance institurions of the IMF, World Bank and WTO. In this case there was  a need for spaces to set up computers and Internet access. (yes there was a time before everyone had a laptop and free wifi in Starbucks!)The idea of setting up a media centre that anyone could access, be given a computer and support to news, photo or audio report was just as revolutionary as the concept of the open newswire website where the results were published.

These were exciting times for media activism as international connections were made between different groups and individuals. Indymedia was a convenient banner under which to organise and represent this new movement. This element of supportive and collaborative real life centres  was a key element in  Indymedia’s growth and in its identity as a network.

In the years 2005-2008, there was a  new challenge presented by a change of tactics. Rural convergences and therefore rural media centres were difficult because of the aspects of providing power to equipment and getting Internet connection. I would be really happy to collaborate on an article about that!

Next up: the Future of Collaborative News Publishing

For the next article, I’d like to fast forward from the start of the collapse of Indymedia UK to the present day. Indymedia UK is now a broken project and there is a distinct a lack of willingness to engage to fix it. Indeed it seems like any attempt to try to fix it just makes it worse.

For me, the real point is that no-one on the outside really cares anymore, right? There are many different tools out there that allow you to openly publish news. In the next article I want to take a look at the future and see how new tools and networks fit different objectives. Can we use our knowledge and experience to make a positive impact.  I’ll have a look at new tools, new networks using them and new processes for bringing increased collaboration.

With that in mind please do comment on this article especially giving feedback on how your involvement in open publishing. I’ll try to integrate some of these comments into this article by re-editing it. Also if you want to collaborate on other articles or writing projects please get in touch.

will future collaboration be based on decentralised tools?