Open sourcing the New York Times

Why does it matter that the New York Times' IT is open? Is that a trick question?

What do you get when you cross one of the world's premier news sources with open-source software? Increasingly, you get The New York Times, plus a dose of confusion from the development community as to why a newspaper would want to share source code.

New York Times senior software architects Jacob Harris and Derek Gottfrid say they've received a mixed reception from the community, because some people just can't understand why a print media company would jump feet first into the open source philosophy. But open source software use isn't new to the Times, says Gottfrid. "I've been here a number of years, and open source has always played an integral part in everything we do."

Recently, the team has experienced growth, according to Gottfrid, in that custom applications developed in-house are "shifting from a proprietary posture. As we were building out and replacing old infrastructure, there were some gaps, so we wrote additional code. And some of those things we're open-sourcing. It's a small, humble effort."

Oddly, it's an effort that hasn't been much appreciated within the open-source development community, for some inexplicable reason. Developers have been slow to grok the reasons behind the newspaper's development efforts. But, according to its developers, Jacob Harris and Derek Gottfrid, it's clear:

We're no longer just a print company, we're a technology company. We need to express ourselves in technological terms. The best way to do that is to give the developers a voice.

Smart organizations have been figuring this out for some time. IT may not matter in some instances, but where it does, open source is the way to get the most from one's IT. The Christian Science Monitor discovered this some time ago:

[Christian Science Monitor CIO Curtis] Edge wants the broader collaboration fostered in an open source community. He feels that the open source methodology allows problems and opportunities alike to be identified quickly by people who can do something about them.

"I like the open source community because anyone at any level can talk," Edge says. "I want my developers to talk with other developers, rather than with a help desk or a support organization. There's a lot of benefit from a grassroots community figuring out what's good for everyone."

It's interesting that the media organizations are among the first to appreciate this shift in IT. One can opt to be a mute consumer of IT, or one can become a participant in community IT, with the latter being a much more productive way to drive value from one's hardware and software assets. Rob Curley, VP of Product Development at the Washington Post, said much the same thing at OSBC last year.

Given the importance of freedom to the press, I actually think it makes perfect sense to keep its underlying source code free, as well. Kudos to the Times for making transparency a part of its ethos, all the way down to the database tools powering its websites.

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