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Archive for August 6th, 2009

Nine months ago, Linux.com stopped publishing. Four months later, the announcement came that its web address had been bought by the Linux Foundation. The change wasn’t the end of independent news about the free and open source software (FOSS)community, but it has left a gap that is still unfilled. And, although as a ex-stringer for Linux.com, my bias is obvious, I can’t help thinking that the community is poorer for it.

Don’t get me wrong: Under the Linux Foundation, Linux.com is far more of a community site than the old version ever was, and often more imaginative, too. I’ve written the occasional article for the new version of the site, and hope to write more for it in the future. But the Linux Foundation has never pretended to be interested in a news site, and it runs far more how-tos than news stories. When it does run news, it tends to mention the bare facts, and add some off-the-cuff commentary. The new site simply has different priorities from the old.

Other news sites exist, but many of them appear to be limping along on starvation budgets. Most stories on Linux Planet and Linux Today are recycled, with the exception of editorials and blog entries by editor Carl Schroder. Datamation and Linux Pro Magazine publish only a few new stories online each week. The Heise publishes more, but is spotty in its coverage, and rarely has stories of more than five hundred words. The most consistent producer of new stories is LWN, and its stories are handicapped by the fact that the site publishes its main edition weekly, which means that its in-depth coverage tends to be confined to ongoing rather than breaking news.

Possibly, I’ve missed one or two sites. Also, some blogs or planets provide news and insightful commentary in their own limited subject matter. Yet the fact remains: the FOSS community has less independent news than it had a year ago.

No doubt some people in the community are hardly aware of the fact. They are busy with their own projects and jobs, and have only a passing interest in what is happening in the rest of the community. Still, from the countless comments I’ve had from people who assume that I’ve disappeared, the old Linux.com was where much of the community went to be informed, and they haven’t moved to the other news sites (if they had, they would know where I’ve been, because I’ve written for most of the other sites in the last nine months).

This lack of news concerns me – and not just as a writer who might benefit if the situation changed. The FOSS community is a complex, quickly changing place, and reliable sources of information can help it to function. Although news sites cannot cover everything, and their selection of what to cover may mean that some events are omitted or under-emphasized, they make the effort of keeping informed much easier for each of their readers. Without news sites, keeping informed requires much more effort. In effect, the sites make the effort for all their readers.

Nor is that a bad thing, so long as the sites make good faith efforts to be thorough and uphold journalistic integrity. If they sometimes make mistakes, they will also publish followups. If they publish a commentary expressing one side of a controversial subject, the next week they may publish another commentary that gives the other side. Although individual articles may fail to meet the highest standards, the overall result of having news site is a better informed community – and an informed community, of course, is essential for the proper functioning of a democratic, grassroots organization like FOSS.

Theoretically, blogs could fill the current gap in news sites. And, in practice, that is where many community members are probably turning. But, while I have nothing against blogs (obviously, or I wouldn’t be writing one), they are only a partial substitute for a news site with journalistic standards.

Blogs can announce news, and comment on it. However, with few exceptions, their writers are less likely than journalists to investigate news, or attempt to balance their sources. Most blogs tend to be short on detail, and to miss nuance. All too easily, they serve to repeat rumors and half-truths that a journalist is more likely to investigate and debunk as necessary. Few bloggers even attempt to uphold journalistic standards, which means that you frequently have to be familiar with the blogger’s previous works before knowing if they are a trustworthy source of information. As flawed as journalism often is, at its best, it holds to higher standards than bloggers and is more reliable overall.

As both a reader and a journalist, I would like to see the gap in FOSS news site filled. The question is, how is that possible? So long as they are under budgetary restraints, the remnant news sites are unlikely to increase their coverage. A group of writers might start a new site, but they would need to have other income while they built audience and revenue. Could an investor or a philanthropist help without compromising the independence of a new site?

The question has no easy answer. However, the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that finding any answer is important.

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