NPR: Navigating Open Source at a Media Organization

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NPR: Navigating Open Source at a Media Organization

Media organizations are using open source to stretch their budgets further. And as more content platforms continue to emerge, open source projects provide alternative modes of development. But what does this paradigm look like on the ground? The returns can be huge. But not everything is rose-colored. Through NPR’s experiences with Android, Chrome, and more, we can chart some of these waters.

Who is this presentation for?
*Media/Content providers thinking about integrating open source solutions into their tool set.
*Open source developers looking to partner with digital media companies.
*Anyone interested in looking under the hood of how NPR does things.

Who am I and why should you listen to me?
*My bio and what I do at NPR.
*Why NPR matters.

As a content org, I’ll cover why one might use (or NOT use) open source, how it changes the basics of getting work done, and some of the challenges it can create. Using product development as a prism, we will explore the specifics of:

  1. An open source workflow
  2. Addressing internal concerns
  3. Finding partners

Different types of os projects we’ve tried for product development:

  • Community driven
  • Framework based
  • Repurposing/Forking existing code

BODY OF PRESENTATION – (I’ll give context for each analysis and elaborate on the fundamental questions posed above as pertinent for each example. Some of this will be updated/changed by time of presentation, but this is a solid foundation.)

EXAMPLE – Community project; NPR News app for Android
HIGH-LEVEL SUMMARY – An open source project creates NPR’s News app found on Android. Hard to start from scratch, but low in explicit cost. Luckily we had help from those who donate their time and expertise. Budget for first year essentially zero, yet generating 10 million+ page views per month. Must gain a certain critical mass to maintain velocity. Had to get creative to recruit team members; twitter, unconference, video, etc. Often difficult to achieve tight deadlines. Community itself can become political. Sticky for legal department. Builds street credibility and helps reinforce public media brand. Less internal oversight which can be both negative and positive. Easier to be innovative on the fringe, but tougher to secure internal buy in. Often seen as a side project and must be defended to management. Difficult to switch tracks if necessary with little to no internal technical knowledge of the code. Can dictate what partners you work with. We’ve wanted to share with other public media entities, but haven’t found effective means to do so. Requires a high level of effort to manage, maintain, and deliver high-quality product.

EXAMPLE – Framework based; NPR for Chrome/tablet webapp & ARGO tools
HIGH-LEVEL SUMMARY – Several products we’ve built have been based on open frameworks. Attractive choice to fill technology holes. Difficult to assess without experimentation; something we rarely have the resources for. Identifying points of failure troublesome. Was it the development modal? A project management issue? The underlying tech? Can be as difficult as learning a new programming language. Often come attached to a certain dev shop who build a business around giving framework away and charging for services. This can be pricy and can lock you into vendor relationships. Same questions as non-open source platforms: does this really fit the need we have better than a custom solution? Easier to sell executives than community driven projects. Chrome allowed us to partner with Google and get featured in the Chrome Store launch, helping identify NPR as an innovative brand. But did we really need a Chrome app? Can save time in development and allow more iterative efforts. But what happens if the core project falls apart? Are you a good citizen of the ecosystem? Do you contribute back?

EXAMPLE – Forking existing code; unreleased Android music app
HIGH-LEVEL SUMMARY – A project that went horribly wrong under the auspicious of open source. Worked with a third-party developer who pitched us to produce a replication of the iPhone NPR Music app on Android. They used code from the news app project as starting point. Communication was an obstacle. Contract negotiation made painful with the open source considerations. Project was done behind closed doors, so the News app community never knew the full details of the work being done. No code ever committed back to the main repositories. Quality never met our expectations and the finger was pointed at the original source code used as the basis for the new app. Without a monitory value placed on the project, the value proposition didn’t seem high enough to through the required resources behind the project. NPR never felt in the driver seat because the project was done pro bono. Became a time-sucking black-hole that never produced a releasable product. Open source took heat, but the real problem was the nature of relationship. Damaged relationship with a valuable technology partner.


Open source is not a panacea for those strapped for resources. Can actually be more costly, just more implicitly. Must be handled with care and used only when appropriate. Return on investment can be huge – larger than just monitory gains. The open source model has allowed NPR to build on more content platforms than we would’ve otherwise been and innovate in new spaces. But it has also cost us heavily in time and effort. There is always a learning curve and open source is always a work in progress.

Photo of Jeremy Pennycook

Jeremy Pennycook


Jeremy Pennycook is a recent addition to NPR’s digital team. With a focus on the intersection of technology and journalism, he manages various mobile products for NPR. Jeremy holds a master’s degree in mass communication from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. He has participated in the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship, Gannett’s New Media Innovation Lab, the Carnegie-Knight News 21 Initiative, and the Knight News Challenge.