Kristine Lowe is a freelance journalist who writes on the media industry for number of US, UK and Norwegian publications. Here she looks at use of open-source software, Drupal, on Danish news sites.
Drupal, a long time favourite free content management system of web hacker-geeks, is going mainstream.
In Denmark, national news sites such as Information.dk, as well as media sites Mediawatch.dk and Journalisten.dk are among those who have swapped their expensive and often complicated content management systems (CMS) for the free open-source software. But open software does have its unique challenges.
Framework, not plug and play
“The price of Drupal is an in-house developer. You get some good building blocks, but you have to think of Drupal as a framework rather than as plug and play: you have to discover everything for yourself,” said Nikolai Thyssen, head of new media for Information.dk.
Information.dk launched its blog section, luftskibet.dk, with Drupal in October 2006, its main site launched with Drupal in August 2007.
After the much-publicised move to Drupal, Thyssen was approached by many smaller newspapers who wanted Information.dk to develop similar solutions for them, he said.
He always refuses, believing this would go against all the compelling reasons that make the technology appealing and attractive.
The main advantage with Drupal, he says, is not having to hand over a lot of money to external providers everytime something is not working.
“I think it is important to keep the expertise in-house. You have to learn to think the Drupal Way, which is far from intuitive, but once you start working with the system it is almost self-documenting and easy to keep track of all the changes you make,” he added.
Merlin of Chaos
Drupal is a module-based system. The basic modules, or “core” contains the all the functionality needed to run a Drupal-site. In addition to this, there is a vast array of modules available to add greater functionality to the parts that have already been built and deployed. It’s just a matter of using them like building blocks on top of the core elements.
“It is important to choose modules where there is a lot of activity on the developer side as this means the modules are up-to-date. If you do not do this, you will have update the modules yourself whenever new Drupal-versions are released,” said Nikloaj Opstrup, head of development, for Mediawatch.dk
“There are many developers in Drupal,” said Thyssen added. “For instance, developer Merlin of Chaos made two of our most important modules, but we had to figure out first who we could trust [to develop the models we would use] and which modules were kept up-to-date. It took a long time.”
No helpdesk, just fanatics
Since Information.dk started using Drupal, they have launched a dedicated Newspapers on Drupal group to help others wanting to develop using the technology.
One of the problems for developing news sites this way is that open software solutions have no dedicated helpdesks and finding the right answers can prove difficult in the beginning.
“You do encounter a lot of fanatics. Those who like Drupal, love it,” said Thyssen.
“But you also get beginners and experts side-by-side in the Drupal forum and [as a result get asked] many of the same stupid questions. This has improved somewhat with our Newspapers on Drupal group, but we are also starting to get a lot of beginners there.”
Easier and less expensive
Mediawatch.dk, Opstrup added, is a niche site with some 5000 subscribers. So the fact that it needed only to spend £20,000 on developing its Drupal solution (roughly £12,000 on building modules and £6000 on programming and design, with monthly running costs of £400-600) was another plus point for the technology.
One drawback, however, has been the problem of finding necessary modules to suit development needs. Both Information.dk and Mediawatch.dk found that working with pictures can be difficult in Drupal and neither site has yet managed to find a picture-module that suits.
Overall, both were satisfied with the improved interactivity, like blog- and comments functionality, and easier publishing and editing offered by Drupal.
“The fact that you can edit straight from the site by just clicking on say the comma you want to edit is wonderful,” said Opstrup.