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Posts Tagged ‘journalism’

Towards the end of 2014, I will have been writing about free and open source software (FOSS) for a decade. The realization surprises me, because I am used to thinking of myself a newcomer. More – I still think of myself as an outsider whose criticisms do not apply to me as much as those who might be called colleagues. Under the circumstances, I hesitate to talk about the quality of coverage that FOSS receives, even though honesty forces me to say that much of it is not very good.

The outlook is not completely bleak. There are some FOSS journalists whom I am proud to call colleagues, such as Carla Schroder, with her practical outlook and wicked turn of phrase, or Steven J. Vaughan-Nicholls who has been reporting and commenting on technology in general and FOSS in particular longer than just about anyone.

However, for every one whom I admire, there are many others who leave me wincing and rushing to analyze my latest article to check whether I am guilty of exactly the same tendencies that I publicly deplore. Specifically, I see at least seven problems with how FOSS is covered:

A lack of journalistic training: I was lucky to have apprenticed at Linux.com in the days of Robin Miller and Lee Schlesinger. Even though I have no formal education in journalism, they hammered into my head the ethical standards of journalism, teaching me about fairness, conflicts of interest and the differences between reporting and editorializing, as well as a dozen other things I needed to know. However, too many of those writing about FOSS – like most of the computer press in general – have no idea that they need anything beyond a fondness for the sound of their own voice. They don’t know how to summarize opposing views accurately, much less that they have any obligation to try. Nor do they check facts. Readers are the poorer for their failures.

A lack of business and marketing experience: Working in business is invaluable for a tech journalist. Such experience teaches you how far you should trust news releases and how a product is brought to market. Unless you know these things, you are likely to be credulous, accepting information that you should be questioning. For instance, when Canonical announced the first vendor for its phones but declined to say who that vendor was, most FOSS journalists focused on the first part of the news and ignored the second. Only blogger Larry Cafiero, who is a mainstream journalist by day, reached the right conclusion: Without the vendor’s name, the news was the manufacturing equivalent of vaporware and essentially worthless.

An imbalance between writing skills and technical expertise: Like the technical writers who crank out manuals, FOSS journalists come in one of two forms. Either they are people who know how to write, or people with expertise. The result? On one hand, you get well-written articles that tend to avoid technical details. On the other hand, you get expert articles that are so arcane that they might as well be written in assembly language. Too few writers seem to strive for articles that are both well-written and expert in their subject matter.

An apocalyptic outlook: Talking about companies and products, FOSS journalists tend to speak in absolutes. Linux will bury Windows one day, and Android triumph absolutely over iOS. What no one notices, however, is that such Conan-esque victories rarely occur except when you are talking about startups and very small companies. When the companies involved are larger, what you usually see is incomplete victories in which market share changes hand, but most of the competitors continue to co-exist.

Quickie reviews: Once you have experience, writing reviews is easier because you know what to look for. Yet, even then, you need time to investigate. But, instead of taking the necessary time, too many reviews touch on the least important parts of their topics, such as the installation program. Nor do they take the time to look for general tendencies in a new release, simply recording a bunch of random observations instead. Such practices frequently make reviews next door to useless.

Too much fanboyism (or fangirlism): It should go without saying that those who write about FOSS believe in it and see themselves as helping it grow. However, loyalty to a cause should not mean blind acceptance of every vagary. As naïve as it sounds, journalists are supposed to deliver the first draft of history, doing their best to tell the truth even when doing so is inconvenient for the causes they support. They may be diplomatic in their expression of the truth, but they are still supposed to express it. This obligation does not make them traitors, as you sometimes hear; if anything, they are being more useful than those who pretend that no problems exist that need to be exposed.

Encouraging personality cults: FOSS is full of colorful personalities. However, although defining an issue as a battle between a couple of people adds drama to an issue, it usually simplifies and distorts it. For instance, the existence of the armed camps of free software and open source is not due just to the fact that Richard Stallman and Linus Toravalds have different personalities and leadership styles, but also to very different motivations shared by hundreds of thousands of people. Were Stallman or Torvalds to die abruptly, the issues would be no less urgent or influential.

In making these observations, I am not excluding myself. At one time or other, I have probably been guilty of all these problems, and one or two of them, I uneasily suspect, may be habitual with me. In fact, part of my reason for mentioning this problem is to identify them so that I can do more to avoid them.

But in addition to being a writer, I am also a reader. While I know all too well that deadlines mean that articles do not always receive the amount of thought they deserve, I also get impatient with the fact that so few articles about FOSS are worth reading or add to my understanding. Many of us who write about FOSS could do much better than we do – but we are hardly likely to try if the problems are never mentioned to begin with.

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Every now and then, someone takes a harsh view of my journalism – not my how-tos and reviews so much as my commentary. From some people’s perspectives, I am trolling, trying to deliberately create controversy, specifically in the hopes of getting more page hits on my articles. I never quite know how to answer such attacks, because they are so far from what actually happens that I doubt they would believe my explanations could possibly be true.

However, if I did try to explain, I would have to start with the fact that I am a writer, not an editor. Unlike an editor, I hardly think about page hits. Page hits may affect whether a given website continues to buy my articles, and occasionally an editor will veto a suggested topic on the grounds that it has never done well, but otherwise? Planning writing around page hits sounds all too likely to mean writing about topics that don’t particularly interest me, or about which I have nothing original to say. If I wanted to write that way, I would go back to writing technical manuals, which not only pays more, but also pays more regularly.

My first consideration when choosing a topic is whether I can write about it while it is still timely. Online articles are rarely current for more than a few days, and sometimes my other obligations or the complexity of what I would like to say mean that I have no time to do a particular topic. justice, even if it interests me. Rather than do a superficial job, in these situations I prefer to ignore a topic altogether.

However, for me, the biggest perq of journalism is that I get to write about what interests me, restricted only by the need for editorial approval. When I am generating topics, what I think about is: Am I interested enough in this topic to spend the hours that the story takes to write? Are the facts interesting and important to readers? Do I have any perspectives that are different enough from those of the half dozen or so others who might write on this topic that I can contribute something original to the discussion?

Unless I can answer all these questions with “Yes,” I usually avoid a story – which is why I only occasionally write about breaking news. (Well, that and the fact that living on the Pacific coast means that by the time I log on in the morning, writers living on the east coast have probably already filed their stories). I figure that a story that will bore me will probably bore a lot of readers as well, and fortunately most editors regard me as more than a reporter on the beat. Most of the time, most editors will trust my judgment on whether a story is worth writing.

Perhaps I should be flattered that my detractors think of me as a sort of Professor Moriarty of journalism, constantly engaged in manipulations of everyone around me in the fulfillment of some obscure but diabolical agenda. But honestly? I lack both the energy and inclination for the requisite plotting.

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For most of the last week, I’ve been having a troll problem. I’m not going to provide a link, because one encounter with trolls is very much like another. Usually, it starts with a hijacked thread, and involves a lot of generalizations and name-calling based on comments taken out of context, conspiracy theories, and a kind of naive cynicism that insists that I could never have done anything except for the worst of reasons.. This encounter was no different, and, like the others I’ve had, leaves me uncertain how I should respond.

I have no trouble with someone who disagrees with me. I enjoy the benefits of a liberal education, in which differences of opinion are seen as a chance to deepen and expand the discussion. Nor am I young enough to expect everyone to like me – in fact, in most cases, I’m relieved when a troll dislikes me, because I usually don’t think much of them, either.

But as a former teacher of rhetoric and composition, I am by nature incapable of ignoring a fallacious argument – especially if it is directed at me. Let someone judge me by a single sentence from a single work, or misquote or take a sentence out of context, and I’m immediately tempted to leap in with a correction. As I have said many times, if you’re going to disagree with what I’ve said, please make it something I actually said and not something that you imagine that I have said. Whether out of carelessness, vindictiveness, or inability, very few trolls seem capable of reading or reporting with any accuracy or precision, so enticing me to reply is often ridiculously easy.

Not only that, I am all too aware of how others might interpret my silence. Will they go away thinking that the troll’s inaccuracies are true? Will they think that my silence is an admission of guilt, that I am ashamed to reply? Worse, will I think myself cowardly? With such questions buzzing in my mind, I can easily find myself wrestling with trolls before I realize what I am doing.

At the same time, I am well-aware that answering is only going to waste my time. By definition, trolls lack an open-mind, and no eloquence of mine will coax an apology out of them, ever. Anything I say will be taken in the worst possible way, if not dismissed outright, and I will convince them of nothing. If I manage to counter one barrage, another will simply start up from a different direction, often using my replies as additional ammunition against me. Under these circumstances, almost anything else will be a better use of my time.

Usually, I compromise, and confine myself to two replies. That way, I reason, I can satisfy my urge to reply and correct any misrepresentations for any audience without taking up too much of time. This time, unfortunately, I was distracted enough to make several other replies before stepping back, mainly because it has been a couple of years since I dealt with a troll, but I’ll remember next time.

This morning, after the thread’s owner had shut it down, the troll started up again from their own account. I’ve resisted the temptation to see what they are saying, but from experience I can predict it. They’ll revise the encounter to make me seem the unreasonable one, and their friends will chime in with words of support that will make them feel heroic for opposing my Satanic self.

But I’ll let them do so unopposed. I’m annoyed that I let myself be dragged in, and I won’t make the same mistake again any time soon. I never know whether attribute such encounters to hypocrisy, or incompetence, but what is clear to me is that, whatever this last week, it wasn’t a meeting of two minds. Att best, it was only a meeting of one and a half.

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A few weeks ago, an editor requested that I not start an article with a quote. They said it made them feel as though they were coming into the middle of a discussion they knew nothing about. I pride myself on being nothing less than professional, and don’t imagine that I am writing immortal prose, so I used another opening strategy as requested. However, I still believe that the request was more a matter of personal preference than a general rule.

To start with, in any opening paragraph, readers are coming into the middle of a discussion, so the same objection can be raised about any chosen tactic. Perhaps the quote I used wasn’t perfectly suited to its position, but that is no reason to condemn the use of an opening quote in general.

In fact, starting in the middle is a time-honored literary technique. It was recognized more than two millenia ago by the Roman poet Horace, who called it in media res, as opposed to ab ovo, or starting from the beginning. Admittedly, it is usually thought of as a technique for epic poetry or fiction, but a journalistic article is often a form of narrative, too. Personally, I figure that what was good enough for Homer in The Odyssey or Shakespeare in Hamlet is good enough for me.

For another, part of the purpose of an opening tactic is to attract readers’ curiosity. Sometimes the topic is novel enough or important enough that the first paragraph needs no embellishment, but that is an exception. An article published online is competing with thousands of others for readers’ attention, and, so long as you don’t mislead or make exaggerated claims, anything that helps it get noticed seems worth trying.

In this case, part of the reason that I started with a quote is that it is a reasonably uncommon tactic. But, in addition, the quote made an unusual claim, which I was counting on to raise curiosity enough for them to read the next few sentences, where they would learn more clearly what the article was about.

Moreover, because a quote implies a speaker, it is automatically personal and direct. Writers of new releases know that a quote helps interest readers – so much so that many make sure that the a quote falls in the second or third paragraph to keep readers going. In a long news release, writers will often add additional quotes further down to reduce the odds of readers’ attention straying. Although articles are less mechanically structured than news releases, quotes can have similar advantages in journalism. Starting with a quote has a strong chance of attracting readers’ attention precisely because it is so personal and direct.

Anyway, even if none of what I said here were true, a part of me always regards a general rule about writing as a challenge. Tell me that something can’t be done – or worse, shouldn’t be done – and my impulse is to try to do it successfully. So, while I have made a note to avoid using an initial quote any time that I work with this particular editor (who otherwise shows a keen sense of how to improve a piece of prose), don’t be surprised if I use one elsewhere. Being told I shouldn’t only makes me all the more likely to try.

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This morning, I booted my computer to learn than an article of mine had reached Slashdot. It wasn’t the first time, nor even twentieth. All the same, the news made me feel that the engines of the world had received a tune-up overnight, and were now purring along the way they were supposed to.

The first time an article of mine appeared on Slashdot, I was less restrained. Actually, I shouted, “Yes!” in the middle of the office and did a sincere but awkward tap dance down the aisles while I punched the sky and alternated between chortles and meaningless ecstatic sounds. Not bad, I thought, considering that four months earlier I hadn’t even heard of Slashdot, the portal site for geeks and nerds.

However, if my reaction this morning was more subdued, it was just as full of satisfaction. As a reader, I may express disdain for Slashdot’s audience, dismissing its members as immature, misogynistic, and possessed of an instinctive ability to miss the point in any given story. Yet each time Slashdot links to an article of mine, I feel the same heady mixture of satisfaction and vindication.

This reaction is only peripherally connected to the fact that I get a small bonus when Slashdot links to one of my articles. By the time I receive that bonus, at least three weeks will have passed, and the bonus is not so large that I can indulge in much anticipatory spending.

Nor is my ego triggered by the fact that a segment of the free software world will be chewing on my thoughts down to the bone like a school of piranhas. After all, I’ve no stranger to comments, and, although I make the point of reading most of what people say about my articles, familiarity has long ago bred indifference to all but the most quirky or thoughtful reactions.

Besides, by the time Slashdot picks up a story, I’ve usually moved on. Even if only a day or two has passed, I’m working on another story – which makes me wonder how actors and writers manage to promote work they did over a year ago on the talk show circuit. How, I wonder, do they keep up the pretense of caring? If they are anything like me, the works they’re talking about must feel as though they were written or performed by someone else.

Rather, my satisfaction comes from the sense of readership. Writing, as most people who’ve tried it will testify, is a solitary business. Mostly, I don’t mind that, since the alternative is to work in an office on projects that are far less interesting, but sometimes the isolation does get to me – not just socially (which is another story), but in the form of self-doubt. Is anyone reading my stuff? I start thinking. Frequently I have to go out and swim or cycle until I’m too tired to maintain the doubting..

However, when an article makes Slashdot, the question is answered with a resounding affirmative. For a day or two – maybe three or four, if the subject matter is especially controversial — at least a segment of the free software is riffing off my thoughts. For a few days more, the number of blogs about my thoughts increases.

I know, of course, that the interest is transitory. Unless you happen to be a George Orwell, day to day journalism is rarely remembered for its thought or style. I know, too, that if people weren’t discussing my articles, they’d be discussing someone else’s.

All the same, however briefly, the interest is there. It never fails to surprise, humble, and even frighten me. But it also justifies me for a moment. For a short time, I have managed to entertain – intellectually, I hope, for the most part but maybe with some humor and emotional appeal and usefulness occasionally thrown in as well. That’s why appearing on Slashdot is better than any award could ever be (not that I’d accept a nomination in the unlikely event that I was put up for one). It’s proof that something I wrote has interested someone other than me — and almost as satisfying the latest time as the first.

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Say something controversial to me in person, and you usually don’t much of a response. I have to be unusually tired or fed up before I’ll do more than say something non-committal and make an excuse as soon as possible to leave. Often, my withdrawal will be to write about the outrageousness of what just happened, because, in print – having sold some 1400 articles and written some 665 blog entries – I’m not exactly known for my reticence. But occasionally, being silent even in print is forced on me by circumstance, although usually at the cost of biting my tongue hard enough that it needs a dozen stitches.

It doesn’t happen often. I have a naïve reverence for the power of dialog. Unlike my father, who learned in the army that giving your opinion could be dangerous if you were overheard by the brass, I believe in talking, no matter what the consequences. Despite countless examples to the contrary, I continue to believe, very simply and sincerely, that if I can just get a conversation started, I can improve things by pointing out previously overlooked nuances, working to keep people informed, and pointing out possible common ground or solutions that nobody else has raised.

The trouble is, the chance for dialog doesn’t always exist..

For example, once I had the kind of story that every writer dreams about. I had proof of some major financial inconsistencies that an organization had been making for several years running, up to and including a loan made to a former director. It was a rare case of black and white without nuance of gray, and I was practically cackling in anticipation of being a minor league Woodward or Bernstein.

The only trouble was, no reputable editor would touch it. Too controversial, they all said, even though I had evidence. Not the sort of thing we publish, one editor told me. So I fumed and stayed silent, and eventually the story sunk into irrelevancy.

Several times, too, some organization or person I had researched has done and said something rash, and I’ve been in the person in the best position to write a blistering op-ed in reply. And I wanted to, because their actions put one cause or another I believed in into disrepute. Sometimes, I even went so far as drafting a dissection of their actions and possible effects with all the verbal wit of a Dorothy Parker or the polemical skill of a Harlan Ellison (at least in my own imagination). But, in the end, I refrained from publishing.

In these cases, part of my restraint has been my deep-seated reluctance to join a lynch mob. I don’t care for the mob mentality, having been on its receiving end once or twice, and I won’t countenance it; it feels too much like being a bully, no matter how justified.

More importantly, while the organization or person may deserve to be called into account, the causes they represent may not. Yet it is not always easy to separate the organization or person from their causes. An attack on the organization of purpose may hurt the cause. So, once again, I shut up, fuming that I am letting someone get away with crassness or stupidity while seeing no other choice except to attack a worthwhile cause.

So what do I do while such events play out? I listen to favorite music. I go for harder than usual workouts. Sometimes, too, I write other things, including blog entries on the difficulty of silence.

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I love argillite. Of all the media used by the First Nations artists of the Pacific Northwest, argillite has by far the most mystique and romance, as well as the greatest visual appeal.

Argillite is a black slate found only on Slatechuck Mountain on Haida Gwaii. Similar slates have been in a few other places around the world, but have slightly different chemical compositions that make them less suitable for carving (or so I’ve been told). Only members of the Haida nation are supposed to be allowed on the mountain, and families have unofficial quarries whose exact locations they try to keep secret.

Rumors persist of a logging road that makes access to the quarries easier, but, generally, artists either have to carry out the argillite they quarry on their backs down a narrow trail, or else buy what others chose to sell – usually at about five dollars a pound on Haida Gwaii, and as much as twenty dollars a pound in Vancouver. The tradition has been to keep argillite out of the hands of non-Haida, although a black market makes small amounts generally available to other artists, who generally turn it into pendants.

The history of argillite carving is equally romantic in its obscurity. The standard account is that argillite carving did not begin until 1820, and that the pipes that were among the first carvings known were never actually used. However, while European tools and interest in curios made the 19th century a Golden Age of argillite carving, it seems unlikely that such a sophisticated art form could emerge suddenly without at least a few centuries of tradition. Studies of early pipes show a residue that prove that some early pipes were definitely used, but, since heat can crack argillite, most likely it was a medium reserved for shamans and other ceremonial use before the nineteenth century.

But whatever the truth of the matter, argillite carvings became a major trade good in the 1800s. Unlike other traditional art, these carvings consisted of far more than family crests and the stories that families and title holders held the right to tell. Instead, the carvers of the time also depicted the animals, peoples, and plants of everyday life. Sometimes, they imitated the patterns of the china plates carried by American traders. Other times, they made miniatures of houses and canoes. At times, they depicted the Haida viewpoint of the European traders and immigrants, offering some of the few contemporary depictions of colonization from the perspective of the colonized.

Nineteenth century argillite was not completely naturalistic. For instance, a head is generally one-third the length of the body. However, much of it is painstakingly detailed, with muscles on arms and legs or the individual strands of a rope all clearly delineated in a way that the more traditional wood carving almost never is. During its development, argillite carving also developed its own stock poses, such as a shaman holding a rattle in his upraised right hand and a knife in his left.

Like other art forms, argillite carving suffered because of epidemics and Christianization. However, because it was a trade good, argillite carving never declined quite as much as more traditional forms. Probably, it helped, too, that Charles Edenshaw, one of the first great Haida carvers whose name and career we know, was a skilled argillite carver – although this aspect of his art was omitted altogether from the recent exhibit of the works of Charles and Isobel Edenshaw at the Museum of Anthropology.

Today, argillite is a niche market. Bill Reid was influenced by argillite design, but only experimented with the actual medium. Similarly, while Robert Davidson as a teenager sold model totem poles in argillite for the tourist trade, it has never been his favorite medium. The same is true of artists such as Jay Simeon, Ernest Swanson, Gwaai Edenshaw or Marcel Russ, although all of these artists can produce outstanding argillite pieces when they take the time.

The trouble seems to be that argillite is more temperamental than wood, silver, or gold. It is dirty to work with, resistant to tools, and prone to flaws that can destroy hours of work with one misplaced stroke. Because of its water content, it can shatter in the cold. Artists like Christian White or Gary Minaker Russ who have done most of their work in argillite are essentially specialists, appealing to a relatively small and expensive market. Excluding pendants and miniatures, galleries rarely have more than two or three pieces of argillite at any one time, and prices usually begin at about $8000.

Nor has the reputation of argillite been helped by the growing practice in the last decade of inlaying pieces with gold, silver, and semi-precious stones. Often, such inlays are added before carving begins, seriously interfering with the artist’s ability to add detail, and, almost always, they are added in lieu of detailed carving. Moreover, because such inlays are expensive, they add substantially to prices, which means that buyers are being asked to pay more for inferior work that increases very little in value.

Quality argillite pieces are still being carved, but to find them buyers either have to visit Haida Gwaii or at least deal with artists directly. However, the effort to find quality can be well worth the effort.

Even when left with its natural finish, argillite has a reflective finish that makes a carving rich in shadows and highlights. These shadows and highlights change with the available light, but always adds a unique impression of depth and motion. They make argillite a medium that demands to be touched, and its carving traced over and over with the fingers – in fact, many believe that frequent handling prolongs the life of a carving, because the oils from human hands replenish the moisture that was originally in the slate.

Elegant and mysterious, quality argillite carvings are an under-appreciated glory of Northwest Coast art that never fail to capture and intrigue the eye.

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