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Dave Whitinger: Inventing Linux News Reporting
Pages: 1, 2

TA: I remember you had a lot of volunteers. Can you explain how the posting system worked? Did the people posting to the site use HTML?

DW: The system was an HTML form that allowed one to insert stories into the database, edit them, and post them. We had a variety of volunteer posters helping us, and the system had built-in access levels.

Lower-level volunteers (those who needed some hand-holding) had access to insert stories into the queue, but a higher-level editor needed to actually approve their stories before they were actually posted to the newswire.

The form was pretty basic, including a headline, lead, body, category, etc. There was a tool to find related stories and such-like, and the editor had to write the HTML for the story (usually just <p> tags to break paragraphs, and the hyperlink text for the full story link).

It evolved into something pretty elaborate to suit our needs. Having a variety of editors working simultaneously needed some carefully written tools to prevent problems.

TA: How did you archive your stories?

DW: All stories went into a MySQL database and remained there for the life of the site. The stories we posted during the first couple of days are still at Linux Today.

TA: In some ways, Linux Today was like a blog--though that term hadn't been defined then. Do you see similarities in Linux sites today?

DW: I guess so. Linux Today was a simple content management system that allowed people to easily enter interesting data and present that data to the reader, and gave them the ability to post comments to the data. That's a basic blog, and it makes sense that the idea of a blog has caught on. Publishing on the Web has always been something of an art form and blogging software has made that easier.

Still, today the best sites are operated by custom-created software. One-size-fits-all isn't always optimal, and this holds true on the Web. Sites operated by Scoop (or whatever CMS software is out there) will be basically limited by whatever that CMS gives them.

For example, when was working toward a redo of their site code, they reviewed CMS packages and decided that to get what they want, they'd have to start from scratch. That was a good move.

TA: Tell us about

DW: LXer is your basic bare-bones Linux newswire, with extra features available but not at all necessary for the reader. It is a lot like Linux Today was back in 1999.

The page is very light, with a minimum of graphics and features getting in the way. The home page is a straight running newswire with articles posted all day. The reader gets everything she needs on the home page, without having to dive into the site to find the rest of the article.

All of our content is available under an Open Content license and our RSS feed contains our entire newswire, including direct links to the external resource. We're the only Linux news site providing this kind of service. All other sites that I'm aware of include only their own URLs in their RSS feeds.

We're basically giving away our newswire to the community for them to do with it as they please.

We have other fun features that community folks enjoy, like discussion forums (each story is its own forum), voting on stories, Bayesian story selection for editors, private hidden email addresses for all members, nightly and instant (as it happens) email newsletters, etc. Anytime anyone wants a fun new feature, it's usually available within a day.

A Linux news site should first be the best for the user. My opinion is that the web site should be free of graphics and intrusive ads, and give the user the fastest access possible to the news.

Oh, lastly, we don't cover a lot of SCO or other negative stuff. People come to LXer to lower their blood pressure and maybe have a little fun. They can go elsewhere for the SCO garbage.

TA: That makes me want to ask: what lessons have you learned that makes the state of the art in Linux sites?

DW: When I created Linux Today, I was a brand new coder and extremely inexperienced. It's astounding that I ever created it in the first place.

Since leaving Linux Today, I spent many years developing other web sites and I am much more experienced now. Features that in 1999 would have taken me two weeks to program today take a few hours and are much higher in quality. LXer is a more advanced system than what ran Linux Today back in the day.

Additionally, there's the human part of it. A good Linux news site will be run by someone who knows what the community wants. Some people are good at GUI design and others are good at kernel work. Folks like me somehow have a pulse on the community and know exactly what they want in an informational web site. I'm in that last category, and I think that's the biggest reason for the success of Linux Today as well as LXer.

TA: How do people join the community and how does it benefit them?

DW: Most of our readers don't log in; they simply access the home page daily (or hourly), read the newswire and click through to all of the stories, and off they go.

Others register for a username so they can vote on stories, mail other members, submit stories, and maybe even participate in the discussion forums.

There are a few who have taken on an editorial role by actively submitting stories into the queue. Many of these have been given full editor privileges (the same access that I have) and post stories directly into the newswire without my intervention.

As the Linux community operates, so does LXer. Anyone can join, participate in discussion forums, and post stories. As they prove to be effective editors, they are given more access privileges, until finally they are editors like me. It just makes good sense to give control to the community, where it belongs.

TA: What plans do you have for the future, and what's your ideal scene?

DW: For me personally? I'm continuing with what I've done for the past five years, which is a lot of Linux consulting and web site development. LXer continues to gain readership and I'm looking forward to continuing to guide that project along.

My ideal scenario is a future where I'm continuing to do exactly what I've been doing; using Linux to slowly and surely make a living for my family, and provide a good service to this community.

TA: With what impressions of the Linux business world should people walk away from this interview?

DW: That for the foreseeable future, Linux and related open source technologies will continue to be the driving force in the industry, and companies that are involved with it will prosper, if they work within the community correctly.

For the past 10 years, and looking forward indefinitely, Linux is the best industry in which to work. It's rewarding, enjoyable, and profitable.

TA: Dave, thank you for your time. And thank you for your commitment.

Tom Adelstein became an author in 1985 and has published and written non-fiction books, journalistic investigative reports, novels and screen plays prolifically ever since.

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