A common event at conferences is a panel of developers with reporters
listening from the audience; your editor moderated just this kind of panel at
LinuxCon 2010. This time around, though, we also saw the tables turned:
there was a panel of journalists facing the developers that they write
about. The panelists were Joe "Zonker" Brockmeier, Jason Brooks, Sean
Michael Kerner, Ryan Paul, and Steven Vaughan-Nichols; it was an
interesting opportunity to see how things look from the other side of the
The opening question was simple: what was the most significant
Linux-related story in the last ten years? Sean wasted no time in naming
the SCO case - it is, he says, "the story that keeps on giving"; seven
years later and he's still writing about it. Steven, instead, cited IBM's
endorsement of Linux and statement that it would be investing
$1 billion in the platform. That announcement, he says, legitimized
the platform and made it possible for people in companies worldwide to
consider using it without getting into trouble. Jason pointed at the birth
of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, while Ryan talked about the onset of "mobile
ubiquity" and the near dominance that Linux has in that area. Ryan also
mentioned MeeGo as an example of how large companies have come to
appreciate the value of collaboration.
Zonker, instead, nominated the rise of Ubuntu. He said that Ubuntu forced
the other distributors to focus on community, something they had not been
doing well before; this is a claim which was not universally accepted by
the audience. At this point, Sean jumped in to say that Ubuntu only took
off because of the seemingly unending delays in the Debian Sarge release.
Had Sarge gone out on time, he says, we would not be hearing so much about
Ubuntu now. Steven added that Ubuntu succeeded because it was an attempt
at commercializing Debian from the outside; earlier attempts from the
inside (he mentioned Ian Murdock in particular) were seriously attacked by
the community and didn't get very far.
Moving on: what is the big story for Linux today? The consensus answer
seemed to be "Android." Steven claims that ChromeOS is going to be a big
deal. He also mentioned the license compliance program just announced by
the Linux Foundation which, he says, will speed Linux adoption.
The reporters were then asked about numbers from analysts, which, when it
comes to Linux, are somewhat controversial. How do they cope with that
uncertainty? Ryan responded that these numbers (covering Linux adoption
and such) are not really illustrative and are missing a lot of context.
Beyond that, they are the product of companies with conflicts of interest;
analyst firms have paying customers who have an interest in how those
numbers come out, so the result is not objective. Sean said he does not
trust the numbers; they are always wrong, so he does not use them. Jason
wished for better numbers on enterprise subscription sales, while Zonker
criticized analyst firms for refusing to come up with a solid methodology
for counting unpaid Linux use. Steven asked simply: who cares about these
It was asked: it seems to be harder to get reporters' attention for
Linux-related stories in recent years, what are reporters looking for?
Sean suggested that there are really only ten Linux stories that he writes and
repeatedly; one of them is "Mark Shuttleworth said..." He also said that
he always covers what the big vendors are doing, but news of the form
"application X now runs on Linux" is not really interesting. Zonker
noted that, while more reporters (with less expertise) are covering Linux
due to its increasingly mainstream nature, a lot of reporters have also
been laid off in recent years. Steven said that we're seeing a natural
progression; like the radio magazines of the 1920's or the Internet
magazines of the 1990's, much Linux news has simply become mundane and
Steven also said that there is little interest by publishers in "serious"
stories about Linux, a statement that Zonker seconded. It is necessary to
write "popular" stories that will draw advertisers. Linux companies, it
seems, are not big buyers of online advertising; that affects coverage too.
Several of the panelists said that there is still a firm wall between advertising and
editorial, but that claim (in your editor's opinion) seems somewhat
contradicted by the fact that they have a hard time pitching stories which
do not appeal to advertisers. Jason said that the publishing business
model is, in general, in trouble and hasn't yet figured out the changes
that have come with the Internet.
As an aside, Zonker asked how many members of the audience run AdBlock
(quite a few hands were raised). Those people were told that they are
"killing publishing, seriously."
Next question: who is the audience for what the panelists are writing?
Ryan said that ars technica has a highly diverse audience, since it is not
just a Linux-related site. Their readers are technology enthusiasts who
(advertisers are told) will take what they learn to the workplace. Jason
writes for enterprise information technology workers, while Zonker writes
for a number of different publications (including LWN) with a variety of
audiences. Steven, too, writes for many audiences.
What about companies becoming their own publishers? Steven claimed that
people are becoming confused by publications which really just carry the
company line, as opposed to what a real reporter would say. Readers are
not asking often enough where a particular bit of news comes from. Ryan
noted that open source companies are much more transparent than many
others, so information tends to be more accessible; community members can
use that information to get the word out, reducing the need for traditional
journalism. But Steven noted that these companies always have something
that they are not saying - he mentioned silent fixes in Mozilla releases -
so there is still a need for people who will dig through stuff. Zonker
said that what's often missing is context; he suggested that people will
wander into (for example) the GNOME census story without understanding all
that's going on.
At that point, time ran out for this standing-room-only session. In your
editor's opinion, it was an interesting look at how the more traditional
media sees our community and the pressures that reporters are working
under. Those people, too, are operating in a rapidly changing world; they
have the challenging task of documenting those changes while being very
much in the middle of them.
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