WordPress.com Secures $2.4 Million in Funding from Google and Partners to Build a Publishing Platform for News Organizations

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.”

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20 Comments


  1. What happens when an authoritarian mega-corporation who makes all their money from advertising bribes a hosting and publishing company to take over local news forcing them to follow “best practices”? Stay tuned to find out…

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    1. Huh.. dark. I like it. You could turn that into a realistic anti-authoritarian series. Maybe involving a bunch of goth types, who are young and hot, but super anti-establishment.

      Get a good agent. #my2cents

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  2. My gut feeling tells me that is going to be another poorly implemented disaster.

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    1. You see those GB reviews with the average score now at 2 out of 5 stars and sinking? The low score is actually a good score, since it proves that GB is forward-thinking, revolutionary and an absolute necessity for bloggers. How people have survived without it until now remains a mystery.

      In other news, it looks like GB is all part of the plan to turn WordPress into another faceless corporation where the leadership is unhindered by the proletariat users. Just a few more forced changes upon the users and the journey to the grown up enterprise world will be complete.

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    2. Actually that is one issue, the other is people who coded WP as it behaves until now simply do not have the slightest idea which features news organisations NEED.
      – widespread control of editorial workflow
      – media handling in its current form simply will not do
      – media citation is also a MUST for that use case
      – not to mention multi-author feature for posts
      And these are just the most crucial ones i can think of in only 2 seconds.

      Would be funny if the same devs could accomplish all these all of a sudden.

      Does GB help there? I think not. But maybe it helps to accidentally mix up some paragraphs by anyone in the workflow in long post about politics. YAY!

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      1. people who coded WP as it behaves until now simply do not have the slightest idea which features news organisations NEED

        The WordPress core development team won’t be working on this, which is why this is an Automattic-led project.

        As I understand it, this isn’t going to be a new release of core WordPress with all these features, but a standard build with plugins, themes, etc, that will provide all of this functionality. Most of those features are available right now, and these will be further improved as part of this, along with new features that many journalism sites find they have to add themselves.

        However, I’m not involved with this project so all of this is based on what I’ve read elsewhere.

        Does GB help there? I think not.

        Certainly, larger scale journalism/media sites think otherwise, and many are moving their workflow to Gutenberg. Until GB came along, most of their editor screens would be unrecognisable to us as they’re so customised, but essentially with meta boxes, etc, for a customised flow. Gutenberg improves this process further and Phase 2 of GB is only going to improve this further.

        It’s a misnomer to believe that businesses are not embracing Gutenberg and seeing the benefits of it.

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      2. Hey David, since you work for Automattic, I have a genuine question:

        It’s a misnomer to believe that businesses are not embracing Gutenberg and seeing the benefits of it.

        I get that there’s a big swell of people caca-ing on GB, and that there for sure are normal people that think it’s great, even though it boggles the mind of the first group, but I haven’t heard of any businesses’ input so far. At least not a business of the scale and inclination that’s being discussed. Are there any names that you can share, or even better, places where they discuss it online?

        I ask because I work with WP a fair amount and when I see it someplace big and in lights I get really excited because I can relate to it (like major television networks) but nothing Gutenbergy comes up for me in a search with places I know off the top of my head. Is this private feedback they’re sharing, or is it an assumption because you know they have moved forward to the next update and haven’t uninstalled?

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  3. Isn’t WordPress a news-publishing platform? That doesn’t cost $10,000 a year to have?
    To all small news organisations everywhere: Use WordPress.org, not Newspack.

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  4. I seen in the post where if it will be open source like we have it today like WordPress.org I am a news blog owner and it is hard to provide a clean news site with a lot of traffic. I hope this new feature and product works good for all news outlets and publishers.

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    1. It stands to reason that many small newspapers already work with proprietary content management systems. When WordPress.com rolls this product out for local news organizations, it will be a competitive product in a crowded market. There are certainly commonalities in online journalism and I’m confident that give the funding and resources, this product will be able to compete with the established vendors while helping lower licensing costs.

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  5. FLASHBACK:

    https://wptavern.com/wordpress-coms-business-plan-gives-subscribers-a-way-to-tap-into-wordpress-orgs-third-party-ecosystem#comment-228402

    “Glimpse of 2020:

    The ‘featured plugins’ section of WP.org now consists entirely of Jetpack, WooCommerce, VaultPress, Gutenberg Themes, Gutenberg Plugins, Calypso Themes, and the Calypso client. In order to download any of these, you need to have Jetpack installed, but in order to communicate with the Jetpack API, you’ll have to use a Calypso client, which you login to via the WP.com SSO page.”

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  6. I’m confused here. Why isn’t WordPress suitable for these organisations in the first place? Surely with the addition of Gutenberg, everything an independant news publication would need is available (or nearly) at least. I’m not sure another CMS is what we all need, but I’m at least interested to see how this project pans out.

    Even though it’s ‘open source’, will it be developed in the open with input from individuals (like me?) or will it be solely developed by the Orgs that have pitched in money? A strange move for sure from Automattic all things considered.

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    1. I would hazard a guess that there are many local news organizations already using WordPress, but they lack the technical skill and development resources to round out their offering. But utilizing the WordPress.com product, they will have the opportunity to leverage a lot, as well as benefit from the resources developing the project. It’s not that another CMS is “what they need.” What they need is an alternative to proprietary publishing platforms that charge exorbitant licensing fees and are not as nimble as WordPress. If I had to guess, I’b be willing to bet many CMS vendors are nowhere near block-based publishing, nor can they do a full Ecommerce integration, if they wanted to.

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  7. The iron on here is that Gutenberg has made running a proper editorial workflow next to impossible. Before 5.0 wordpress had (limitted) support for custom post statuses, which are essential in an editorial environment.

    The new block editor broke this and Trac item 3144 has been outstanding for a year

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    1. Yeah, not to be a jerk, but Gutenberg isn’t what I’d lead with when making the pitch.

      “So, good news, you won’t owe us 100 grand each much just to license our tools. It’s actually open source!”

      “Great! So where do we start? I wanted to lead the article by having two pictures next to each other, side by side.”

      “About that…”

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  8. This is a much needed collaboration between Automattic and a many financial and service contributors, Google being one.

    Small news outlets have been rapidly dying out in frighteningly increasing numbers.

    That threatens a free press by shrinking investigative reporting and diminished quality. It reduces local oversight on public interest reporting, and limits choices for consumers.

    And it’s getting worse.

    Generational sources of print journalism are disappearing. The small two or three or five person organizations can’t turn a profit because they can’t compete with the large players. They can’t afford to pay for traditional news CMS licensing or the underlying technology costs. In my opinion, more than ever, we need more legitimate news sources, not fewer.

    This partnership provides one possible solution. Tossing aside all the negative reactions and conspiracy claims about Gutenberg, Automattic and Google, this project can really help legitimate small news organizations become profitable enough to hire more journalists and expand. And it can help jumpstart new sources of journalism too.

    That’s a good thing. And I support it.

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  9. I’m very interested in and excited about this project. In 2010, I lead the effort to develop a custom news CMS on WordPress in the Reese Felts Digital Newsroom at UNC Chapel Hill School of Journalism. My plan was to build the theme and then to open source the theme and associated add-on plugins for other EDU-connected local journalism organizations to use for their newsrooms. Unfortunately, my boss was let go for having an inappropriate relationship with a student, but the fundamentals of what we were trying to achieve were still valid and it shows today with this announcement that we were on the right track. It’s unfortunate what happened and that effort never expanded out beyond the news theme we developed, but I’m glad to see that there’s an initiative out there and it’s gotten some support from Google and other foundations. This is important work, for sure.

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Comments are closed.