Linux desktop hate, and the profit in yellow journalism

I’m going to give you two links today, but I don’t want you to click on them.

Usually when I have links I don’t want you to see, I just withhold them altogether. It’s safer that way, and I can generally give you an idea of what’s there without inflating your blood pressure by sending you to those pages.

This time both articles are critical of Linux, and if you’re reading this you’re either familiar with Linux or a proponent of it. The first is Matt Asay’s insistence that Linux abandon efforts toward a desktop, and the other is John C. Dvorak pulling the plug on Linux’s viability at the desktop.

I’m not sure why the Linux “desktop” is getting so much hate these days, but then again, I’m not really sure what the Linux “desktop” is. If there is a concerted effort to corral the efforts of every free software project out there, and herd the masses toward the “desktop,” I wasn’t aware of it. The Linux desktop has always just “been there” for me, and so maybe I take it for granted.

But it’s worth looking at both articles, for wider reasons that actually move beyond the scope of this site.

Matt Asay should be a name you’re familiar with, if you’ve been around the Ubuntu fan club for a year or two. Matt was a former company officer with Canonical, and apparently has links to Novell and did some academic work with open source licensure.

It might be easy to see why a former Canonical headman might prefer the Linux “desktop” expire. For half a decade now, Ubuntu has been trying to convince me that my computer is actually a cellphone, with no success. Unity’s glaring shortcomings aside, it’s easy to see how someone who drank so deeply of the post-2010 Ubuntu Kool-Aid might walk away insisting that Linux abandon the “desktop” and embrace its smartphone/server renditions.

Mr. Dvorak is another matter, with a slightly longer repertoire in the tech industry … including insisting as far back as 1984 that a computer mouse was nothing appealing, that Apple should jettison the iPhone, and that the iPad would end up in the dead zone of tablet computing.

Perhaps with such a track record for faulty divination, his dismissal of the Linux “desktop” for its lack of a killer app might actually be a good sign.

I’m not going to criticize either gentleman on the grounds of their technical or academic backgrounds, mostly because my own resume doesn’t include a CS degree, or any computer, electronic or technical expertise beyond “hobbyist.” Asay is a career corporate officer, Dvorak is a history and chemistry major, and my own academics are similarly distant from technology. We all found our way here somehow.

But here are a couple of thoughts for you, before the topic widens.

Matt Asay’s rant appears on TechRepublic. CNET bought TechRepubic in 2001. CNET is part of the holdings of CBS Interactive and subsequently CBS Corporation.

John C. Dvorak posted his casual dismissal of the Linux “desktop” on PCMag.com. PC Magazine is published by Ziff Davis, which has sold off some media assets to QuinStreet but has a parent company in j2 Global.

That’s no great feat of investigative journalism on my part; it’s really just following links through Wikipedia or About pages. I hope, though, that it shows a trail of bread crumbs back to news and information corporations.

And this is when the word “clickbait” should spring to your mind … and hopefully now, you can see why I didn’t want you to visit those links.

I worked in journalism for a long time, which was a mixed blessing. When paste-up print media faded and graphical page design took over was around the same time journalism on the whole began to decay.

It would be easy to blame technology and the Internet for that, but that’s not completely the case. Newsprint in particular never had a sky-high profit margin, and even in the golden days of 50 or 60 years ago, a lot of journalists were in the field because of a sense of social responsibility, or out of respect for the tradition.

If I had to pick one point in time, I’d say things changed with 60 Minutes, which showed that the news could turn a profit. It didn’t matter that 60 Minutes, even into the 80s, was at times an exceptionally well written and well researched program — in other words, good journalism. The profit was there, and some smelled the potential for more.

From then on — roughly 20 or 25 years ago — the news was no longer a business held for generations by liberal-leaning family-owned corporations. Decades of thin profits earned through a “noble” pursuit of news were hacked down to increase the amount of money moving upward.

If newspapers were slipping by the 1990s, the Internet probably greased the slope. Even so, newspapers and media corporations in particular were eager to throw out the paper model, and I can recall editors foaming at the mouth when the prospect of going all-digital appeared. Ad men and editors alike were all too eager to drop a physical medium for an electronic one.

But with that came a corresponding drop in quality — after all, if you can skimp on the medium, you can skimp on the message. It was easy to slap a story onto a web page, and it was even easier to hire someone off the street to concoct a rambling 36-inch story about fly-fishing, pieced together without ever leaving the office. The biological tendency for reporters to plant themselves in front of computer monitors and dredge up a few quotes off the Internet became the norm.

I can recall a particularly painful moment when I and a city editor ransacked an editor-in-chief’s office one night, looking for the application materials for a writer who had been on our staff for about a month. We were dumbfounded that the man was such a horrible writer but had gotten the job; when we saw his application test we realized he couldn’t string two words together to save his life. But he worked cheap and had ten fingers, so they hired him.

The corollary: There are no good reporters, only good editors. Remember that, and you’ll do fine in life.

But in a nutshell, that’s how we find ourselves where we are today. Asay and Dvorak are just the latest in a trend of yellow journalism that publishes uninformed or poorly researched news material in the hopes of winning a visit from you. In the old days, circulation, single-copy sales or viewership determined how a newspaper or television station was performing; these days your click is one out of a million, but they all add up to revenue.

You too can post a profit with one inciteful (but not necessarily insightful) writer and a pay-per-visit contract with an ad company. And the Linux audience is no different, as Asay and Dvorak have shown.

I could go on about this for hours, but no one is served by it. It is my hope that the next time you see a particularly vitriolic article deriding any point on the social continuum — be it the Linux “desktop” or otherwise — you pause just long enough to follow the bread crumbs back to the corporation that’s making the money from your visit.

It’s always easier to recognize a marionette when you can see who’s holding the strings.

Postscript: If for some bizarre reason this topic is interesting to you, Paul Steiger wrote a long but terrific memoir in 2007 of his days on the Wall Street Journal that encapsulates the less-than-graceful shift from paper to Web site. Alessandra Potenza’s defunct but exceptional investigation into journalism in Italy, Europe and America is also worth visiting. You can compare those to a the perspective of a younger journalist who joined the profession at the crest of the digital wave, and see how the focus shifts away from social values and toward the technological element. Some of that can be attributed to experience, some to inexorable sea changes. You be the judge.

8 thoughts on “Linux desktop hate, and the profit in yellow journalism

  1. tin

    Great read, I’ve been noticing the same things lately. If they feel the need to attack desktop linux we might be going in the right direction.

    Reply
  2. Ron Lankford

    Browsing through the Linux BBQ Gallery a few posts down leaves one with the sense of the impossibility of actually defining a ‘Linux Desktop’. Those who do so and then try to criticize it seem like self-appointed corporate mavens who have no concept of what the Linux community is all about.

    Reply
  3. Pingback: Linus was right | Motho ke motho ka botho

  4. Pingback: Reviewing the review, the reviewer and the reviewee | Motho ke motho ka botho

  5. Pingback: Like tears in the rain | Motho ke motho ka botho

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