Posts Tagged ‘Linux.com’

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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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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Slashdot, the portal site that bills itself as “News for nerds. Stuff that matters” has a strong hold on technical people’s imaginations and ambitions. For this reason, I’m often asked how to get a story mentioned on the site. They assume that, because I sell most of my articles to Linux.com, a web site that, like Slashdot, is run by SourceForge, that I have inside knowledge about how Slashdot’s inner workings. But the truth is, Linux.com and Slashdot are run so independently of each other that I have no idea how to interest the Slashdot staff. Nor do I have any better luck than anyone else at getting contributions accepted. That means that, when I do get a story on Slashdot, I’m as pleased as any outsider.

The first times I had stories on Slashdot, I wasn’t using my own name. Instead, I was ghosting, first for Stormix Technologies, and then for Ian Murdock at Progeny Linux Systems. Each time, I was pleased, but retained a sneaking suspicion that the link wasn’t so much anything that I had done so much as the interest that Stormix commanded as a new distribution and Ian as founder of Debian GNU/Linux.

For this reason, the first time I got on Slashdot under my own name was a heady experience. It was on March 2, 2005, with a review of OpenOffice.org 2.0. At the time, I was more than a little unsure how to react. I wrote ruefully in my journal that day:

My reaction is a little mixed. On the one hand, I like the increased visibility. On the other hand, when I see that several hundred comments have been posted, I feel that, should I ever be eaten by piranhas, then I’ll have a sense of deja vu.

Very little of my reaction has changed since. Like any writer, I like the idea of a larger audience for what I do Yet Slashdot is such a free-for-all that reading the comments can be a strain – not simply because some people disagree with me, but because I often get the feeling that people haven’t read the story at all and reacting as much to things in their mind as anything they can see on the screen.

Still, that doesn’t mean that I was displeased. As Oscar Wilde said, “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.” I could pretend that I was simply glad that an important subject was becoming widely known, but, although that would be partly true, I would hypocritical if I tried to dodge the fact that much of my reaction was sheer ego.

Since then, I’ve had a trickle of articles on Slashdot. Usually, they are just enough to keep me going, while being just uncertain enough that the novelty never wears off. It doesn’t hurt, either, that I receive a small bonus whenever one of my Datamation stories hits Slashdot.

My best month for Slashdot was September 2006 – but through no virtue of my own. That was a period when Linux.com had an employee whose job was to submit likely stories to sites like Slashdot and Digg. Still, that run of luck made me feel that I had arrived as a journalist.

A week later, when I attended my first high school reunion, I felt like I didn’t have to take apologize for what I’d been doing with my time. I had proof of my success, even if few non-geeks understood exactly what it meant.

I’ve never equaled that tally, or come anywhere near it since. But I have seen links to my work on Slashdot on two successive New Years’ Eves – again, not because of anything I could boast about so much as the fact that the last days of the year are slow for news and I’m usually still laboring to meet my monthly quota then. Both times, I enjoyed a quiet moment of satisfaction.

Getting on Slashdot isn’t the only mark of success for someone who writes about free software. I’m pleased to get something on the front page of Digg, and, just this morning, my first article made Techdirt provoked a cry of triumph as I sat at my computer (much to the surprise of the parrot who was on my shoulder at the time). But, given Slashdot’s status in the sub-culture in which I work, I don’t suppose I’ll ever tire of this momentary mark of distinction – all the more so because, like everyone else, I’m never sure when it will arrive.

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