August 30, 2001

Happy birthday to us (or, looking to the future of NewsForge)

Author: JT Smith

- By Grant Gross -

One year ago, during the LinuxWorld Expo, NewsForge quietly launched as the "Web site of record for the Open Source community." It doesn't feel as if a year has passed.

A small group of people, headed by OSDN editor in chief Robin "roblimo" Miller and NewsForge chief programmer Jamie McCarthy, had spent most of the summer of 2000 planning and building NewsForge, and I remember nervously watching the page-view stats that first week as a few hundred readers would show up each day. A year later, those hundreds of readers show up by the hour, sometimes by the minute, when there's a hot story on the front page.

A database of Open Source news

NewsForge seems to mean a lot of different things to different people (later in this article, a couple of NewsForge staffers comment). I first heard of the NewsForge idea from Robin in the spring of 2000, when he announced to a Web-worker email list, during a discussion on how Web sites could make money, that he was looking for freelancers and some staffers for a new project being launched by what was then called Andover.net. I knew Robin through his common-sense posts on the email list and through his writing and posting on Slashdot, which I read regularly when I was news editor of an online employment site called techies.com.

If I remember right, Robin explained NewsForge as this place where all the news about the Open Source and Free Software communities would reside. In some ways, it would be a database of Open Source happenings as much as it'd be a traditional news site. So, two years from now, someone could go back and find a story about Red Hat's Q2 2000 financial report. But if NewsForge posted all this news from other sources, Robin thought it only fair that we'd also contribute some news. With a handful of staffers and freelancers, he believed we could eventually build a solid news reporting operation.

What we found is that while the linked stories were often well read, our original reporting usually received many more page views. While there seemed to be a lot of feature- and howto-type writing in publications focused on the Open Source community, there wasn't a lot of hard news reporting being done, and readers quickly responded to our efforts. As those of us just starting to report for NewsForge began building our source lists and building relationships, we started slow, but it was clear from early on that well-reported original stories would bring us readers.

More feedback than we were used to

Not all readers were immediate fans, of course. Early on, most any article we did that wasn't entirely positive received its share of criticism. We were accused of being anti-Linux, although we were using Linux to browse and write and do most everything. I remember one poster on another site accusing us of trying to rip off SourceForge's good name, until someone pointed out that NewsForge and SourceForge are owned by the same company. Early on, Robin told a couple of us who were getting way more feedback than we were used to that we needed to develop much thicker skins.

I'm not trying to say, however, that all criticism of NewsForge is undeserved. I'm proud of NewsForge and the progress it's made in one year, but we have plenty of room to improve. A few days ago, Robin asked readers what NewsForge should change, and we received several wonderful ideas, both in the article discussion and by email. I want to thank all those readers who cared enough to share their thoughts, and I want to encourage readers to continue to let us know what we're doing well and what we should do better. Email us at editors@newsforge.com any time you have a comment.

A fun place to work

Back, briefly, to my joining NewsForge, if only because it mirrors the experiences of others here. After I emailed Robin saying I'd be interested in freelancing and perhaps in a staff job if the situation was right, he wrote back quickly asking if I'd be interested in being the managing editor of this thing. The next thing I knew, I was being interviewed and offered the job, and I fell comfortably into this OSDN band of misfits and free thinkers, spread out all over North America, who probably wouldn't fit in most other corporate environments.

I can't speak objectively for my performance, but what first appears to be a "hiring-by-feel" standard that Robin uses works pretty well because we've gotten good employees from it. Night editor David "cdlu" Graham describes talking to Robin on IRC a couple of times about the NewsForge project before he was hired. News editor Tina Gasperson, who came over from an old Andover.net site, TechSightings, says she got the TechSightings gig as a "just a fluke or maybe destiny" after Robin's first choice didn't want her picture taken for the column mug shot. Tina had responded to a note Robin had put on freelance writing email list, and Robin first said he liked her but had hired someone "geekier."

When Robin wrote back about the picture problem, Tina took the job. "Never one to value privacy over cold hard cash, I immediately accepted and the rest is history," she says.

What's my point in this lengthy aside? I still don't know the process Robin uses to hire people, but I suspect it's more complicated and researched than "hiring by feel." There's a bit of a mystique to it that adds to the environment that makes NewsForge and OSDN a fun and interesting place to work.

Of course, fun and interesting are good and all, but there probably should be a larger purpose for a Web site than to entertain its employees. News editor Dan Berkes emailed me some comments about working at NewsForge that hit both on the fun aspect and on something larger, the connection to the community of readers. A connection with readers is something most every news writer lusts after, even if it sometimes requires a thick skin. One of the loneliest feelings in the world is writing what you think is a compelling article, and then hearing nothing from the readers, positive or negative.

Dan, who came over from Andover.net's DaveCentral in November 2000, says his feature-writing background made him nervous when he was joining the more hard-news oriented NewsForge. But his nervousness was gone in "about 10 seconds" after joining the NewsForge IRC channel and meeting the veterans. Sounds like he's sucking up, doesn't it?

Dan says his most memorable experience was wandering the LinuxWorld New York floor in February with other staffers wearing their NewsForge fedoras. "That fedora attracted quite a few stares from fellow convention-goers, but what surprised me the most was the reaction it received away from the convention," Dan remembers. "I
went to London right after my time at LinuxWorld, so the hat had to go with me. At least half a dozen people at London's Gatwick airport stopped to ask me if I worked for NewsForge, and [it got] the attention of an irate raven at the Tower of London. I'm not sure why the raven didn't like the hat, maybe he was a Microsoft employee."

Dan continues: "It's hard -- impossible, really -- to pick out one thing and say, 'This is what I really like about NewsForge.' But if I had to, I would say that for me,
it's the community response that I love the most. Positive or negative, it is extremely gratifying to hear from the people who read what I've written."

'Wild ride, but fascinating'

Business columnist Jack Bryar, who came over from the old AndoverNews, notes that NewsForge has chronicled an interesting year to watch Open Source software and businesses.

"NewsForge became the best place to watch Linux go mainstream," Jack says. "We saw
the major vendors try to take over the marketplace, and largely succeed!
It's been a stressful year for commercial Linux pioneers, yet stress breeds
creativity. The Open Source community continues to generate more
interesting business concepts than any sector in high tech. I see a new idea every
week. This coming year I hope we'll see some good business plans to match.
It's been a wild ride, but fascinating."

Jack's last sentence could just as easily been describing NewsForge's first year as well. In many ways, I hope this process we call NewsForge continues to be a bit of a wild ride, because as noted philosopher Linus Torvalds says, our chosen work should be entertaining.

But I'll make a promise amid the ups and downs and the successes and failures of this wide-ranging community of people interested in Open Source and Free Software: I promise that NewsForge will continue to cover those news stories as they unfold, to break stories and write thought-provoking commentary you won't find anywhere else, to continue to be the Web site of record for the Open Source community by linking to every appropriate news story we can find, and to work hard to improve our coverage and the site as a whole. We've got some changes on the way, and we always welcome your thoughts on what we can do better.

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