Nine months after the announcement of Newspack by WordPress.com, the Chilean news site El Soberano became the first publication to launch on the new platform. On October 16, the small news team relaunched with a fresh design powered by the Newspack theme and its newsroom-focused plugins.
Newspack is a project of Automattic, the parent company of WordPress.com. Its goal is to work with leaders in the news industry to create a platform that brings WordPress to more newsrooms. This year, the team behind Newspack has worked with several publications to address obstacles in journalism on the web.
The Newspack team was primarily advised by 12 publications during their first phase. Most of those publications are based in the U.S., but a few, such as El Soberano, are from other countries. The Daily Maverick from Johannesburg, South Africa, and Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting from California came on as advisers from the outset. However, they may also launch on Newspack sometime in the coming months.
“We had 10 sites that we’re going to launch as soon as possible,” said Steve Beatty, head of Newspack Communications. “Of the 10, one dropped out as they changed publishers. So that leaves El Soberano and eight others, and those eight should launch in the coming weeks — certainly by year’s end. We’ve got the next few queued up.”
During the initial phase, Beatty said the team was looking for small to medium-sized newsrooms that were covering local news or niche publications. The development hurdles would likely have been much higher starting with large organizations.
“We wanted newsroom leaders who were willing to experiment and try something bold and different, knowing that there was a very real chance of growing pains,” said Beatty. “The partners in our pilot newsrooms have been incredibly helpful, patient, understanding and cheerful. I’m not sure we screened for all that in the application process, but it’s worked out quite well.”
El Soberano is a Fitting Launch Partner
WordPress.com claims its “mission is to democratize publishing one website at a time.” El Soberano, based in Santiago, is a smaller news publication with three people on the current full-time staff. Their goal is to connect citizens with organizations that will help defend their rights. The publication covers social movements within the country and to be an outlet for independent journalism.
“In our news outlet we believe that only the organized people are sovereign of their destiny,” said Roberto Bruna, Content Director at El Soberano. “Our name ‘El Soberano’ is all about el pueblo soberano, the ‘sovereign people’ in English. For us, individual rights and freedoms are crucial. Then, things like a secular state and civil rights, such as the legalization of cannabis, homoparental adoption or the right to a safe abortion, are things we report about.”
Bruna further defined the publication’s goals.
In El Soberano we defend an environment free of contamination; equal opportunities for women, ending the precariousness of their lives; a real pension system for citizens; sexual dissidence, to guarantee their equal rights and inclusion; a new development model based on innovation and knowledge; a secular state and freedom with critical thinking; urban planning and good housing solutions; consumers and a healthy and sustainable market and, finally, mechanisms that aim to create truly democratic constitutions for our countries.
El Soberano does not give space for other interest groups because such groups have the means to make their opinions publicly available. Instead, its mission is to report on social issues directly from citizens. “In them lies the power of decision regarding the direction that our democracies must take,” said Bruna.
Launching El Soberano with Newspack
As one of the first publications to launch with a new system, it’s tough to be a pioneer when a lot is riding on success. Ana Arriagada, Executive Director of El Soberano, was ready to take the news website to the next level after three years.
“When we decided to take the next step and transform El Soberano into a sustainable environment, it was a great achievement for us to be chosen for the Newspack pilot with other eleven news outlets,” said Arriagada. “We were the only news site in Spanish and from Latin America, so we felt very proud.”
Arriagada has worked with the Newspack development team over the past six months to help guide them on what tools are needed to run a newsroom.
The decision to apply for the Newspack pilot program was in part due to avoiding pitfalls they had seen with other digital media websites. “Friends with their websites hijacked by a former ‘friend’ developer when they try to move to a new platform, custom developments that only the author understood, huge invoices for maintenance hours, or even spending months working on a design that was not possible at the end,” said Arriagada. They wanted to avoid other problems such as taking too long to apply changes to the homepage in the fast-paced world of journalism where new stories should be front and center.
Arriagada said such problems were resolved with Newspack and their team can concentrate on editorial and revenue generation.
El Soberano originally launched on WordPress.com in January 2016. Arriagada said it was nearly impossible to find a good selection of templates that were built specifically to solve the problems of the news industry. “In Newspack we have the chance to combine different content blocks adapted to our needs, showing content in flexible ways,” said Arriagada. “Now we have tools designed to generate revenue with the experience and best practices from world-class digital media.”
Arriagada called working with the Newspack team a “journey of discovery.” In the beginning, it wasn’t clear how the team would use the information they were collecting from El Soberano and other publications or how the team would resolve issues based on the information provided. Eventually, they received design proposals, which allowed them to get a feel for what they wanted and to further provide feedback to the Newspack team.
“Later, we received the access to the platform where we were able to play around, putting things in order, creating and implementing what we were looking for,” said Arriagada. “More feedback, corrections, hopes, and dreams.”
She said that working with the Content Blocks system allowed her team to better create and assemble their homepage and articles. “But maybe the most interesting thing for us,” said Arriagada, “was that Newspack team and other news sites from the pilot program proposed things that we don’t consider for our site, such as an ultra-flexible donation system or workflow systems. We see a lot of power in that collaborative way to develop a product.”
The Future of Newspack
Newspack launched phase two of its program in July, which sought to bring 50 more newsrooms to the platform. The new publications should be announced shortly.
“Both the initial pilot group and this group of 50 (or so) are part of the one-year development period, which ends on February 29,” said Beatty. “We’re still determining what will happen on March 1. We’ll have a better sense of that when we start working with the 50 and see how quickly we can turn them around.”
Like much of Automattic’s work, it is open source and freely available to the public. Newspack is a collection of packages to create a platform for newsrooms. Of note are the following repositories.
Developers can find all eight plugins from the Automattic GitHub page if they want to give them a spin.