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Reclaiming realism for idealists; welcome to our new website

An introduction and call for contributions from our editor in chief
Tony Curzon Price
Tony Curzon Price
9 November 2009

In March 2009, we announced that we were launching a site re-design. This is it.

The new site is based on two principles: openness as well as editorial federalism. The openness exists at many levels: open to the creation of new sections; open to volunteers; open to new contributors (for example through a streamlined submission process); new ways of opening up and airing our archive (through an advanced search page that I hope will grow many new features). From the reader's perspective, we hope that the new site will offer:

  • a cleaner look for online reading and browsing
  • you can see our editorial Sections and what they're about clearly
  • you can access topics for navigation more easily (and we have further enhancements planned)
  • you can get better sense of the content / authors and how readers are interacting with the content with clearer sideboxes

It took not only a great deal of very impressive and efficient technology work by Thomas Ash, our gifted technology consultant and OurKingdom's managing editor. It also involved many meetings of the whole openDemocracy team making decisions of principle and detail.

You can imagine that a group of people who devote their thinking lives to questions of institutions, power, group behaviours and violence are going to see in the process of how a web-site publishes a microcosm of government and society. For example, should everything that is published on the site appear on the feed to the front page?

We needed to debate this question because of the novel character of openDemocracy. Over the course of the last eighteen months we have been growing a 'federal' model. We have independent sections, which you can now see listed and colour coded on the left side-bar. These have their own editorial teams and their editors have the right to decide what to publish in them. They also have their own funding, contribute to oD's core costs and share in the front page editing. I discuss our model more below. The overall aim can be described as moving oD away from being like a magazine published on the web, to becoming a distinct editorial network of a kind only the web makes possible, while retaining the quality and consistency of excellent traditional publishing.

What goes onto the front page then rapidly becomes a question about selection, quality controls, collective responsibility, and how openDemocracy filters out noise. As it turned out, the default position is now that everything published on the site appears in the stream under the front page selection bar, although editors can opt pieces out if they feel they are strictly of local interest to their blog. So we maintain what might be called elitism and what we call judgement and discrimination in the selection but our basic view is that "if it was good enough for a section on oD, it should be proudly shown on the front page."

But this is an experiment, the quantity of section blog posts might make it hard to 'see' the main articles, for example. Reader and user feedback is welcome, please comment at the bottom of this piece.

The front page selection---the section at the top of the screen---continues to be a crucial editorial task. This is the part of the website that gets the most attention and generates the most readers. We have weekly rota of editors taking on the task of shaping that selection. Section editors each have a week at it, as does David Hayes, our Deputy Editor who does not have a section but looks after the openDemocracy common. The editorial discussion of whether articles qualify for this space creates a process of assessment and often leads to requests to authors for improvement.

We're keen to expand the rota and bring in guest front-page editors. If you would like to shape the front page of openDemocracy for a week, send us an email explaining what your editorial goal would be for your week.

What about the Sections? The toughest argument here was whether publishing something as a Section might become a way of side-lining or pigeon-holing an article. This was felt most acutely by the editors of 5050, the gender-focused section. Is giving gender a section a way of hiding the issue, a reversal from our important goal of making openDemocracy equally read and written by men and women? After all, if we achieve this by concentrating most of our women writers in a gender ghetto, aren't we simply reproducing with a few cosmetics, the divisions we aim to overcome.

Everyone had some sympathy with the argument against Sections. But there are powerful arguments for: a focus on specific topics and a clear way to signal these is useful for readers; editors can take full responsibility for sections and develop their characters rather than always be contributing to developing a common, compromise-filled whole; funders can see clearly what it is they are supporting...

There is also a larger question that has been debated implicitly in openDemocracy over recent years. All publications need a community of interest to be influential. But there is not yet a global public as such that forms this on a planetary scale. But there are areas of interest - whether formed by states that have protracted issues with the nature of their democracy such as Russia or the UK, or by issues such as the struggle for women's equality and emancipation, or the nature and regulation of the global economy - where there are networks of interest that call for  cause-based debates with international significance and the potential for dedicated funding and support. The autonomous sections and the federal model express something about the realities of today's world.

A lot of the work in the new site has gone into making the bit that readers don't see---the publishing, link-collecting, categorising etc. all much easier. openDemocracy relies very heavily on a growing group of publishing and editorial volunteers to get pieces out to a high standard and on time. (If you would like to get involved, email Julian Stern, our Publisher). It had therefore become a priority for us to make the publishing process easy and intuitive so that volunteers' time is not wasted and more can be spent on the non-technical aspects of the work: picture research, sub-editing, link research, etc. On this aspect, Thomas Ash and Julian Stern have made huge progress. We have moved from a release 4 of the open source content management system, Drupal to a release 6 of Drupal. The Drupal crowd have really made huge progress in those versions, and it is a pleasure to be at the user end of such an active and dynamic open source community.

We've also upgraded the servers that are hosting the network of openDemocracy sites. Here again oD relies on the community efforts that have built the GNU/Linux operating system Ubuntu. Our thanks to Rob Dyke of Comwifinet for his efforts in building a virtualised hosting platform with Ubuntu Jaunty Jackope. Our sites are hosted on  capacity generously donated by Calvatia.

As described above, "Editorial Federalism", or maybe the "editorial cooperative", seeks a balance between the unplanned energy of the blogosphere and the coherence of centralised command and control of the old newspaper. Editors are experts with a commitment to build an editorial project and need to focus on their real interests and competences without having to worry about keeping an audience, marketing, maintaining a web site, building an email list. openDemocracy allows an editor---whether for a short project of a series of articles or a long commitment to build a complete section---to "plug-in" a project to the openDemocracy platform. The new site makes it easy for sympathetic projects to find a home. (Our new navigation bar (see the discussion of the issues that we launched the public redesign with, here), common to all pages, is the technical and visible reality of bringing together all of the federal elements ... during design meetings, I often referred to this as the "attention tax" that the center imposes on the periphery, but was often reminded, rightly, that this is an unnecessarily negative and conflictual way of approaching federalism...)

If sympathetic projects can easily plug into the new site and our way of working, this raises the question of what exactly we are doing all of this for. What is it to be an openDemocracy project?

The commemorations of the fall of the Wall and our excellent coverage on this has reminded me of the idealism that I and many others felt at the end of the 1980s. My last year of studying politics as an undergraduate was 1989/90. In November 1989, I wondered whether all the work I had done before that would be utterly useless in understanding the new world (more immediately, I wondered whether any of it would be relevant to the questions I would face in 6 months in my final exams; I should have been able to predict how slowly academic thinking changes, how hard it is to let go of an old view of the world. Many of my generation and those older have still not really adjusted their habits of belief to post-1989. Every aspect of politics---the party system in the UK, US and Europe, the international disorder of the post-War, the economic settlement and the legitimate grievances of the poor, development policy---all of these had deeply buried into them the Cold War, and the fall of the wall would be a transformation and allow a global renaissance.

As Anthony Barnett, openDemocracy's founder, has argued in his reflection on the revolutionary normal, much did change for the better as a result of 1989. But as our long-standing columnist Fred Halliday has pointed out in his recollection of the "other 1989's", the idealism of the late 1980s has been disappointed.

Since its beginning in 2001 the spirit of openDemocracy has been to  reclaim realism for idealists. The good world that seemed possible in the late 1980s is possible---the claims of immutable forces of human nature, economics or the reality of power need to be shown up for the self-serving myths that they are---but it is also much more difficult to change the world than many of us thought in the immediate post Cold War. Realism should not be left to cynics, neo-conservatives and market fundamentalists. We need to have a clear, honest and courageous picture of reality; but it must also be plural, respectful and humanist.

Courageous realism---expertise, quality, an insider's understanding---in the service of an ideal---a just and democratic world respectful of human rights; this is what openDemocracy aims for. Our new website should make us better at doing this. Let us know how it is working for you or write to us to get more closely involved.

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