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Beyond a Content Management System

What working with People’s Archive of Rural India taught us about online journalism.

In 2011, the then Rural Affairs editor of The Hindu and author of “Everybody Loves a Good Drought”, P. Sainath proposed an insane project — a living archive of rural India. Most coverage in the national press, Sainath observed, is limited to urban areas. The devastation in rural India, as the country undergoes a major agrarian crisis, has gone virtually unreported. The People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) was conceived to bridge this huge disconnect between mass media and mass reality.

Shalini Singh — journalist and PARI founding member — shares her experiences of reporting on Odisha’s Anti-POSCO agitation with students of Shantiniketan​.
[Shalini Singh — journalist and PARI founding member — shares her experiences of reporting on Odisha’s Anti-POSCO agitation with students of journalism at Shantiniketan​.​
Photo Credit: ruralindiaonline.org

​A ragtag posse of volunteers — technologists, journalists, activists from across the world, including a number of Thoughtworkers, joined Sainath in imagining the technical landscape of this “never ending project”. To the techies amongst us, it all seemed quite straightforward. Three words: Content Management System (CMS). The project would basically involve a CMS, we thought, a design and a discussion on categories under which we would put video, text and images. We were in for a surprise. 

The center piece of the tech puzzle for any journalism website certainly is the CMS. When we started building PARI, we used Mezzanine, the Django based alternative to Wordpress. We had not imagined that the rich text editor of a CMS would be one of the most critical components of a journalism website. We soon learned that journalists want to have control over the presentation of their content. With print, they are particularly fastidious about typography, block-quotes, text-wrapping around images, white spaces, straps, headline lengths. And they wish to bring this attention to layout detail to online journalism. A make-do rich text editor that just renders content is not enough. Moreover, with the popularity of Medium.com, younger users had a different expectation from the online rich text editor than what the TinyMCE or CKeditor on Mezzanine had to offer. As we observed users of PARI upload images to the site, we realized that the media manager also had to be state-of-the-art, allowing for tagging, searching and sophisticated ways of organizing files.

Free Software is Like Kittens

Drawing from these learnings, we decided to change our CMS from Mezzanine to Wagtail. This is where our choice of a robust and popular web framework like Django saved us. Migrating a CMS is a risky task, but because Wagtail and Mezzanine are both Django based, the migration was possible without a show-stopper. While the number of updates from the development community for Mezzanine is dangerously diminishing, Wagtail has a dedicated team at Torchbox supporting it. It is important that a free and open source CMS have a vibrant community of developers continuously developing various kinds of modules. A core, committed team of contributors needs to keep it updated with the rapidly changing needs of the Web. They must keep an eye on security vulnerabilities and support emerging software engineering practices like automated testing and CI/CD. The choice of tech stack is also crucial. You don’t want the client searching for affordable Haskell developers once you have delivered your elegant codebase and left. 

That said, the real problems of a journalistic website are seldom technological. The real challenges are in the economy of journalism and the politics of technology.

Requirements Discovery and Online Journalism

Every independent media outlet has a diverse team of professional journalists, part-time students, volunteers and activists. Their skills and acquaintance with technology tend to be varied. Technologists need to work with the client team in cultivating this backend team. While prescribing practices involving digital content based on learnings from the last two decades of the web, we have to remember that there is a lot that centuries of journalism can teach us — about readership, editorial vision and design.

P.V. Chinnathambi the librarian tells his story of running his lonely library in the middle of the forested wilderness of Kerala’s Idukki district.
[P.V. Chinnathambi, librarian, tells the story of his lonely library in the middle of the forested wilderness of Kerala’s Idukki district​.
Photo Credit: ruralindiaonline.org

Online journalism is at the cutting edge of journalism. People are trying new things. For fresh ideas like PARI, new audiences have to be built and new user behavior to be imagined. For example — a teacher who uses PARI as offline classroom material does so very differently from a student who does rural reporting for assignments. These varied use cases give rise to new requirements, which surface as PARI grows organically. From the time PARI went live in December 2014, we have received several emails from volunteers sending translations of English articles in various Indian languages. PARI now has articles translated into as many as 18 Indian languages. This is not just localizing the user interface. This is translation of content. Add to this the complexity that some Marathi readers, like me, like to read news from Maharashtra in Marathi but news from Jharkhand in English. This behavior is uncharted territory.

Analytics is important but let not our biases about our existing audience cloud our vision of new audiences. As journalism goes online, so are hundreds of millions of Indian language readers. The way these users access the web and their expectations are new undiscovered areas. The more you engage with your readership the more user personae emerge. The more online journalism matures, the richer the user experience gets. We can focus on reaching audiences in our identified user personae; but given the diversity of the country and its readership, we must also look out, watch and adapt.

Politics of Digital Journalism

Outside of the web-app, there are services that stand between the journalist and her reader. Web hosting, DNS, CDN among others, but also SEO, analytics, social media, are instruments that are indispensable for any modern website to run. Hence, it isn’t surprising that huge monopolies i.e huge concentrations of capital have gathered around these services. Technological decisions around intermediary services have implications on the running costs and business model of journalism.

[PARI is used in the classrooms of more than 15 graduate schools across the globe in their South Asian studies and journalism departments.
Photo Credit: ruralindiaonline.org

The location of the server for example can be a peculiar problem. During Cablegate, Amazon pulled down Wikileaks on a mere call from a senator — no injunction, no subpoena. Free services have a plethora of problems that are very relevant to journalism. A detailed threat model that takes into account the kind of journalism a media team pursues and the circumstances under which it operates, is thus very important.

The journalism at PARI is different from Wikileaks. Thus the threat of authoritarian dismantlement is not an urgent concern. The effects of increasing operating costs on the quality and goal of journalism is the most pressing issue for media teams like PARI. As costs incurred by social media campaigns and SEO amongst others add to the bare minimal running costs of web-based information dissemination, online journalism comes exceedingly under the grip of similar monopolies as print and electronic media. In addition to free software, thus, the strategic use of free and paid intermediary online services can be pivotal. For example, PARI uses Youtube to stream its videos. This works for PARI because its content is under the CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 license. On the flip side we have to worry about the rights that Youtube (and Google) exercise over using PARI content.

Business Model

PARI differentiates itself from “parachute journalism” by putting most of its money into regional fellowships. A fellow reports from a region of India where he/she has to stay for at least three months while spending a year covering that region. Costs of living, travel and equipment for a year’s fellowship are not insubstantial. PARI does not accept advertising, governmental or corporate funds. All money available to PARI is from individual donors and awards. Most of this is put into generating content. The role of technology hence is to help in reducing all other costs, including its own operations and maintenance. Only an economically sustainable independent media can take on corporate monopolies.

Volunteers and Workflow

PARI is a diverse group of volunteers with various skills and languages, distributed geographically. Here PARI volunteers receiving an award from historian Romila Thapar.
[PARI is a diverse group of volunteers with various skills and languages, distributed geographically. Here, PARI volunteers receive an award from historian Romila Thapar​.
Photo Credit: ruralindiaonline.org

With more than 2000 volunteers, PARI is used in the classrooms of more than 15 South Asian studies departments and journalism schools in India and across the world. This has created a huge inflow of material. The editorial process is one of collaboration between the writer and the editor. This behind-the-scenes workflow problem is the trickiest challenge for PARI. The system needs to be easy to use for a diverse group of volunteers with various skills and languages, distributed geographically and work for a user base that is most comfortable with inboxes, social media walls and existing text editors.

Platforms like PARI are not only websites that report on the everyday lives of everyday people, they are pedagogical tools that aim to inculcate a culture where journalists engage with the society that they are reporting on, without resorting to self-censorship. Such platforms can not succeed unless technologists share this vision and understand the impediments in realizing it. Journalists expect more than just a website from technologists. They need an engaged tech team that is sensitive to the geo-political, economic and societal crisis that journalism is going through.

Disclaimer: The statements and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Thoughtworks.

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