Interview: Tony Mobily, Free Software Magazine


Author: Aaron Klemm

Free Software Magazine launched last month in electronic format, with a print version due in April. Free Software has no central office, and is not funded by any venture capitalists with deep pockets.
Article topics range from an analysis of XML to a discussion about intellectual freedom. Segments of Richard Stallman’s blog are promised as a regular feature. A section of technically-oriented articles covers password management, LiveCDs, and programming free software on Mac OS X. The final section deals with economic, social, and political issues of free software. We spoke with editor-in-chief Tony Mobily about creating FSM and his goals for the magazine.

Congratulations on the launch of Free Software Magazine. Who do you see as your target audience?

Identifying FSM’s audience is a little bit tricky. Free software is not a specific product; for example, both Apache and Firefox are free software, but they are very different in many respects.
The common ground for FSM’s readers is their love of free software and of freedom in general. The magazine is a good way of reinforcing our movement’s beliefs, and of creating awareness that the freedom we have at the moment might be taken away if we don’t fight for it. It is also a way of discovering what you can do with free software from a technical point of view.

The magazine also targets all those people who confuse free software with “shareware” or “freeware.” Sadly, that still happens a lot.

FSM is a “free software” magazine. Does the “open source” ideology have
a place at FSM?

Using Richard Stallman’s own words, “The Free Software movement and the Open Source movement are like two political camps within the free software community”.
In general, FSM leans towards the Free Software movement, which, I feel, gives more recognition to GNU (which, let’s remember, started it all) and emphasize the importance of freedom. This is why the magazine is not just about free software, but also about freedom.
The Open Source ideology does have a place in FSM, for sure: we are fighting the same war, but in different camps, and in different ways!

What are the key features of your business plan? Is FSM a completely
bootstrapped venture?

Yes — in fact, we are pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps as we speak. 🙂
The business plan is based on an assumption that would probably only work in the free software world: that subscribers are willing to pay a higher subscription for a magazine that is:

  1. Of a very high standard.
  2. Central to our community.
  3. Aimed at paying authors good money for free contents (we are not at this point yet).
  4. Willing to donate ads to free software companies.

Other magazines cost much less than ours — we charge $6.95.
But our aim is different. We are not here to make millions. We simply want to give free software an authoritative voice people can refer to and quote.

You have offered reduced-price and even free advertising to companies that support free software. Are you concerned that will place too high a burden on subscribers?

No, because we will hopefully have plenty of paying advertisers. As soon as that happens, we will reduce the price of the magazine.

Since delivering a free-as-in-beer printed magazine to subscribers isn’t feasible, do you see a lesson in the FSM sales model for software developers?

To be honest the short answer is no. I think writing software and writing magazines (and documentation in general) are very different things. FSM’s model is basically “subscribers get the newest magazine, non-subscribers get six-week-old issues.” This works because the delay is not great. Applying this principle to software doesn’t really work. There are security bugs to be fixed, patches to be accepted, and so on.

What I do think, though, is that this model should be followed by other magazines and publications. I worked in the magazine industry in Europe for five years. The amount of wonderful articles locked away forever is just not acceptable. Making articles accessible on a Web site for free (as in beer) is not enough. Contents need to be free — under the GNU Free Documentation License, a Creative Commons license, or simply a verbatim-copying-only license. That’s the only way to ensure that contents will stay alive forever — or at least as long as at least one person wants them published.

In Issue 1 of FSM, you describe the technical work involved in creating the magazine. Were there unique technical problems using completely Free Software to create the first issue?

First of all, a disclaimer: our system is based nearly entirely on free software. Unfortunately, there is still one critical component [a VBA script for manipulating RTF files] which needs non-free software to run. We are planning to fix that soon.

As far as unique technical problems, I must say that, if anything, thanks to free software we managed to save phenomenal amounts of time (and therefore money). I am not talking about license fees here. I am talking about the fact that we generate the magazine’s PDF automatically. There is no composition involved!

We achieved this thanks to LaTeX and Gianluca Pignalberi, a LaTeX guru and university lecturer who decided to invest vast amounts of his time in this project. With FSM, the PDF is generated directly from the tex file, which is generated from the XML. Gianluca has to check that nothing went wrong with the conversion, but mistakes are getting less and less frequent — and once they are fixed, they won’t show up ever again!

You use GIF files on the FSM website and JPEG files in the print version of FSM. Are there plans to use the W3C-endorsed PNG file format, which has no history of patent problems?

GIF was a choice that happened nearly by accident. In fact, it was thoughtlessness on my side.
Now, many automatic scripts are based on the assumption that we have GIF files there.
JPEG was used for a similar reason. We are looking into converting all the images to PNG, but it will take time.

It’s a typical example of the mistakes you can make when you start fresh, even if you are a freedom advocate. There are a million things to do, and by the end of the month you’ve made one or two mistakes which you really shouldn’t have made, and that will take quite some time to fix.

Is it difficult to find authors who want to write about free software and related issues?

Finding good authors in any field is not easy. Finding reliable authors is very hard. Finding good, reliable authors who are willing to write for free (even as a temporary arrangement) can be really quite tricky!

Again, I was amazed by the number of amazing authors I found right at the beginning of this adventure. I am talking about people who write articles which make a difference, change people’s minds, or explain something in the most brilliant way.

How will you ensure the quality of the articles remains high?

Some authors will hand in an article, and you think, “If every author were like this, I wouldn’t need editors.” But they are the exceptions. Several authors need [three or four] steps in the editing cycle.

Some of the published articles have been edited really heavily, changed, improved, discussed.
I believe that’s what makes the difference. A magazine is not a blog: each article needs to be sharp, well-edited, aimed at a specific audience. That’s a lot of work and we are willing to do it.

What are your plans for compensating authors?

We can pay authors when we have at least 1,300 subscribers and a few paying advertisers. We are working on both these things. I believe we will be able to pay authors from issue 5 onwards, but it could be a little later (if no ads are sold, and subscriptions are slow), as it could be a little earlier (if people buy ads, and subscriptions are going OK).

Not paying authors really, really bothers me. I will never, ever say “your payment is the honour of writing for us and be published.” I don’t think that’s the way you run a business.
I will pay authors before I pay myself — that’s a promise.

How does the future look for FSM? What are your long-term goals for the

Right now, the future of Free Software magazine depends on its subscribers, and subscriptions are coming. We need about 300 subscribers by March 12 not to lose money, and we are slowly but steadily getting there.

The long-term goal? Well, I have several. The primary goal is to turn Free Software Magazine into the most important magazine in the free software world. I want it to become the authoritative voice of our movement, a publication that everybody in the IT world knows and respects.

I would also love to be able to drop the subscription prices, which at the moment are far too high. We will be able to do that as soon as we get more subscribers and advertising.

How can people subscribe and what is the subscription price?

There are several options. You can pay by credit card (monthly, six monthly or yearly) or by (American) cheque. The magazine costs US$6.95 per issue; at the moment, that just covers the printing costs and the postage. When we print more magazines, the printing costs will go down and we will be able to charge less for FSM. In the meantime, we ask the members of our community to subscribe, support us and join us in this adventure.

Write for – and get paid!


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