Archive for March 4th, 2009

I wrote for Linux.com for five years, so anything I say about the transfer of the site from SourceForge to the Linux Foundation is hopelessly biased. Still, while I wish the Linux Foundation every success with its new community-oriented version of the site and hope to do some writing for it, I am sorry to hear that the new site will not be focusing on journalism. The free and open source software (FOSS) community had something special in Linux.com, and many people don’t seem to recognize what’s been lost.

Quite simply, the old Linux.com site and its sister-site NewsForge were the largest source of original news in the FOSS community. That is not just bias, but objective fact. The FOSS community has other sources of original material (and I’m pleased to write for them), incuding Datamation, Linux Journal, and Linux Planet, but only LWN is in the same league as the old Linux.com’s average of four stories per day, plus one one two on weekends.

And these weren’t just links to other stories, or quick rewrites of news releases, the sort of content that you find on many technology sites. These were independently researched stories, ranging from breaking news and opinion pieces to how-tos and reviews, each averaging 800 to 1200 words.

Even more importantly, the quality of Linux.com stories was consistently high, thanks to the general policies of editor-in-chief Robin “roblimo” Miller and the copy editing skills of executive editor Lee Schlesinger and his various assistants over the years. Sometimes, a regular contributor slipped up, or a new one published a shoddy piece, or the submissions didn’t include enough pieces to maintain both the highest standards and the busy publishing schedule, but the overall quality surprisingly high (I’m talking about other people’s work here, you understand, and saying nothing one way or the other about my own).

Again, this statement is not just bias. If you don’t have time to re-read the archive (which I’m grateful to hear that the Linux Foundation will preserve), consider some of the people who wrote for Linux.com: Chris Preimesberger, who moved to eWeek; Joe “Zonker” Brockmeier, now community manager for openSUSE; Lisa Hoover, now a successful freelancer, or award-winning writer Joe Barr, who died at his workstation last summer.

And that list is just the start of a list of regulars that includes such writers as Nathan Willis, Dimitri Popov, Susan Linton, Ben Martin, Federico Kereki, and Marco Fioretti. Not every successful writer covering FOSS and technology had a stint at Linux.com – not by any means – but a surprising number did, and I think they were better for the experience and the consistent market for their work.

Both Robin and Lee might be embarrassed if I called Linux.com a center of excellence, but that’s what it was, and my own experience shows that. Virtually everything I know about journalism, I know from selling stories to Linux.com. I learned journalistic ethics from Robin and impartiality, pitching a story, and structure from interacting with Lee. I learned editorial writing from the example of Joe Barr, and how to cover breaking news by being given a chance to try it.

Five years ago, if anyone had told me that I would be writing and selling some twenty thousand words per month and surviving as a freelance writer, I wouldn’t have believed them. But, thanks largely to my experience at Linux.com, I do. Linux.com taught me so well that I have even managed to survive its end as a news site – sometimes less comfortably than I did when it was a going concern, and scrambling more as I write for half a dozen editors, but surviving all the same.

Some readers criticized Linux.com for not being blindly supportive of everything and everyone claiming the FOSS label, or for not sharing their opinions. Others mistook covering a topic for support of it. But what such readers failed to understand, and what made Linux.com important for the FOSS community was its honesty. You might disagree with what writers said on the site (I frequently did), but you could trust that they were giving an honest opinion, uninfluenced by advertisers, counter-opinions from editors, or even their general sympathies for FOSS. You could trust, too, that, except in obvious commentary, they were making a good faith effort at fairness (whether or not they achieved it), and not engaging in the demagoguery that passes for journalism on some other kinds of sites. This truth-oriented journalism is more important to a community than blind reinforcement of basic tenets, because it genuinely and reliably informs in the short run, and, in the long run, becomes a first draft of history.

I knew three months ago that Linux.com was being transferred to the Linux Foundation, but I have been under non-disclosure until now. In the mean time, I’ve moved on, writing for other sites and expanding my existing association with other sites. But, the news of the transfer brings the regret back to me, and I wonder if SourceForge ever knew the value of what it had.

Still, looking back, I’m proud to have been accepted as part of Linux.com, and to have learned the writing trade there. I couldn’t have asked for a better school in which to learn.

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