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In the last few days, I’ve had several experiences that make me think about my role as a journalist in the free and open source software community:

The first was a reaction I had from someone I requested some answers from. Although I thought I was being polite, what I got back was an attack: “I am not prepared to answer any of these questions at this time. The intent of your article is to feed the flames and I will have no part in that. The fact that people like you like to stir up controversy is to be expected, since that is the job of any writer trying to get readers.”

This reply not only seemed presumptuously prescient, since I hadn’t written the article, or even decided what angle it would take, but also unjustifiably venomous, given that I didn’t know the person. Moreover, although I am in some ways a contrarian, in that I believe that questioning the accepted wisdom is always a useful exercise, when I write, I am far more interested in learning enough to come to a supported conclusion or to cover an interesting subject than I am in stirring up controversy for its own sake. The fact that an editor believes that a topic will get a lot of page hits is meaningful to me mainly because the belief sets me loose to write a story that interests me.

Still, I don’t blame my correspondent. He probably had his reasons for his outburst, even though they didn’t have much to do with me. But the fact that someone could react that way says some unpleasant things about some current practioners of free software journalism — things that alarm me.

Another was the discovery of the Linux Hater’s Blog (no, I won’t link to it and give it easy page hits; if you want to find it, do the work yourself). I don’t think I’ve ever come across a more mean-spirited and needlessly vicious blog, and I hope I never do. However, recently as I’ve been preparing stories, I’ve come across some commenters on individual mailing lists who were equally abusive. They are all examples, not only of what I never want my work to be, but the sort of writing that makes me scrutinize my own work to ensure that it doesn’t resemble them in anyway whatsoever.

Journalism that stirs up hate or encourages paranoia — or even journalism whose focus is sensationalism — is journalism played with the net down, and I’m not interested in it. Oh, I might make the occasional crack, being only human, or use the time-honoured tactic of saying something outrageous then qualifying it into a more reasonable statement. But, mostly, I prefer to work for my page hits.

Such sites also suggest that the line between blogging and journalism is sometimes being blurred in ways that aren’t very complimentary to bloggers. While some bloggers can deliver professional commentary, and do it faster than traditional media, others seem to be bringing a new level of nihilism to journalism.

A third is the unexpected death of Joe Barr, my colleague at Linux.com. Joe, better known as warthawg or MtJB (“Mister the Joe Bar,” a story he liked to tell against himself) encouraged me with his kindness when I was first becoming a full-time journalist. Later, when I started writing commentaries, his editorials were an indicator for me of what could be done in that genre. As I adjust to the idea that Joe isn’t around any more, I’m also thinking about how I’ve developed over the last few years.

The final link was a long interview – almost twice my normal time – with Aaron Seigo, one of the best-known figures in the KDE desktop project. One of the many twists and turns in our conversation was the role of journalism in free and open source software (FOSS). As Seigo sees things, FOSS journalists are advocate journalists, acting as intermediaries between FOSS projects and the larger community of users. He wasn’t suggesting that FOSS journalists are fan-boys, loyally supporting the Cause and suppressing doubts; nothing in his comments suggested that. But he was pointing out that FOSS journalists are an essential part of the community. In fact, much of what he said echoed my own half-formed sentiments.

Seigo also discussed how a small number of people making a lot of noise can easily deceive journalists who are trying to be fair and balanced by making the journalists think that the noisily-expressed beliefs are held by more people than they actually are. As he points out, the American Right has been very successful in this tactic, especially through talk-radio. He worried that part of the recent user revolt against KDE 4 might be due to something similar.

Listening to him, I tried to decide if I had fallen for this ploy in the past. I decided that I might have been, although usually I try not just to be thorough, but also analytical enough to sift down to the truth.

I was going to try to summarize what I had learned from these four separate experiences, but my efforts to do so only sounded sententious – to say nothing of self-important and over-simplified. But I’m thought of all four as I’ve exercised recently, and I’ll be thinking of them for some time to come, too.

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