WordPress.com has announced plans to create a new, open source publishing platform that caters to small and medium-sized news organizations. The Google News Initiative has contributed $1.2 million towards the development of “Newspack” on top of WordPress.com’s infrastructure.

Automattic and Google have joined with other contributing partners from the broader world of journalism for a total of $2.4 million in funding for the first year of the project. These partners include The Lenfest Institute for Journalism ($400K), ConsenSys, the venture studio behind Civil Media ($350K), The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation ($250K), and an additional partner who will join later this month. Spirited Media and News Revenue Hub will also contribute to the creation of the platform.

Local news organizations are critical for a healthy democratic society, keeping the public informed about things happening close to home. The move to digital news consumption has forced consolidation in the news industry where larger players have come out ahead while smaller publications struggle to stay above water.

In a report called “The Expanding News Desert,” published in 2018, researchers at the University of North Carolina found that nearly one in five newspapers has disappeared during the past 15 years. Many others have become “ghost newspapers,” shells of what they once were – either absorbed by larger dailies that purchased them or suffering from a severely pared back newsroom that is unable to adequately cover local events.

WordPress.com has amassed an expert team to address this crisis in local news. The Newspack platform will cater to the technological and editorial needs of smaller newsrooms, with the monetization tools to make their work sustainable. WordPress.com is currently accepting applications for charter participants and plans to launch in beta near the end of July 2019.

Open Source Newspack Platform to Offer an Alternative to Expensive Proprietary CMS’s

The WordPress community has speculated widely about what shape Newspack will take, whether it will be like WordPress.com VIP tailored to publications or something similar to Jetpack with a curated set of tools that could be used by self-hosted sites through SaaS upgrades. According to WordPress.com president Kinsey Wilson, a former executive for NPR and The New York Times who joined Automattic in 2018, the platform may end up being a hybrid of approaches.

“It’s still very early in the process, but I expect elements of both VIP and Jetpack to inform this,” Kinsey said. “Newspack will be part of the WordPress.com platform, but we’re going to be working on a highly curated experience tailored to these news organizations, with individualized support available across editorial and business.”

The platform will support plugins that solve problems publishers experience at the local level and will also include Gutenberg-specific editorial tools.

“It will leverage Gutenberg,” Kinsey said. “A few examples of the tools that might be launched with Newspack include email integration for marketing and editorial; programmatic ad integration, analytics, real-time backups, and revenue generating tools for subscriptions and e-commerce. We hope to work closely with partners across the WordPress ecosystem for potential ways to work with services that are beneficial to news organizations.”

The most important distinction of the Newspack platform is that it will be open source. That also puts it directly in competition with proprietary CMS’s like Arc, Vox Media’s Chorus CMS, and MediaOS, that are prominent in the news industry right now. Instead of working together, larger media companies have opted to build their own CMS’s and many of them are also licensing enterprise versions to publishers or offering them as SaaS solutions.

I asked Kinsey if Newspack will be something news organizations could self-host or if it will be inextricably tied to WordPress.com’s infrastructure. WordPress.com is making it open in the sense that publishers will not be tied to using it forever if they want to their information and copy the same setup somewhere else.

“It is not only open source, it will be designed so that at any point in time any individual site or even a commercial competitor could capture an image of the setup and port it to another platform,” Kinsey said. “The value we offer is our knowledge of the news industry, our ability to keep pace with new requirements, and our ability to vet various plug-ins and open-source contributions to the project for security and interoperability — all at an attractive operating cost of between $1,000 and $2,000 per month. In addition, we hope to expose news organizations to a wider community of like-minded developers and to create an on-boarding system that simplifies the setup.”

Operating costs on proprietary platforms are much higher than what WordPress.com is planning for Newspack. Arc costs smaller publishers $10,000 per month in software licensing fees and can cost up to $150,000 monthly for larger publications. Vox media executives told the Wall Street Journal that the company “plans to sell Chorus at different pricing tiers depending on the demands of each customer with fees in the six and seven-figure ranges.” Small local news publications are often priced out of using a publishing platform like this.

“It breaks my heart how much of their limited resources these organizations still sink into closed-source or dead-end technology,” Automattic CEO Matt Mullenweg said in a post introducing Newspack on his blog. “Open source is clearly the future, and if we do this right Newspack can be the technology choice that lasts with them through the decades, and hopefully our 15 years of growth lends some credibility to our orientation to build things for the long term.”

Google’s support of Newspack is in line with its history of building with and supporting open source projects. When asked for clarification on Google’s investment in the project, Kinsey said, “It is a donation that is intended to support work that otherwise would not likely find commercial support because of the relatively modest means of small digital publishers.”

WordPress.com’s Newspack announcement comes on the heels of the news of Digital First Media’s unsolicited $1.36 billion bid for Gannett. The future of local news is tenuous, as larger players in the industry press for more consolidation and cost-cutting journalism. In the same week, Facebook, who has had a hot and cold relationship with publishers, announced the company is investing $300 million to support local news.

In recognition of the dire situation facing many local newsrooms, the largest companies on the web are committing funds to help them find a sustainable business model. WordPress.com’s Newspack platform, with its affordable, open source alternative to proprietary systems, is positioned to make a strong impact during this seminal time in the evolution of the news industry.

“By itself, an open source CMS is not going to help news organizations remain independent,” Kinsey said. “However, by helping new, emerging organizations overcome the complexity and cost typically associated with technology deployment and instead allowing them to focus resources on journalism and smart business practices, we think we can help them become more sustainable.”