Unabashed believers of Open Source software and its transformative mission might be given pause by Linux Journal shutdown announcement. The better informed of the lot ought to be less surprised. This was the second time it happened in 2 years.
This time, thought, there is little hope of a comeback. The staff has been laid off in its entirety. Advertising contracts have been finalized. Some arrangement could still be made that allows the current website (with some 24 thousand pages indexed by Google) to remain as an archive of its several technology, industry, strategy, advice and reviews of products and books. A comprehensive, 301-volume archive of the Linux Journal Magazine, dating as far as 1994 and including digital version of the print edition that ended on 2011, begs to be downloaded immediately. (See “Mirrors” at the end of the article for a surprise.)
Was Linux Journal another victim of the raucous tide of digital publishing, where ballooning valuations follow massive layoffs, in a sequence so fast it almost makes it pointless to examine their journalistic merits?
1984. 1994. 2004
A couple of highlights throughout its tenure start early. They include founder Bob Young, who would later on found Red Hat; and a profile of Linus Torvalds on its first print edition. Another one came with the onset of the Homeland generation, as readers’ interest for Tails, a Linux distro designed to make surveillance impossible, made the Linux Journal Magazine’s audience subject to special attention by the NSA. “I can certainly describe many of us ‘extreme’ in a variety of ways” would Journal consummate reader as well as writer Katherine Druckman famously retort.
The demise of “venerable” Linux Journal —both in the Open Source and the publishing circles of Houston, Texas— had been announced once before. In December 2017, the publisher’s accrued debt would render the operation unsustainable and out of options. For a minute, it seemed it would go the way of the WaPo, and thanks to a tech Maecenas (PIA instead of Bezoz) the Journal got a second wind. Except that it was a $25k USD whiff.
A staple in tech advocacy journalism fell pray to a new world brought up by said technology. But there is no free lunch, or at least not forever. As free-to-access, user-generated and user-curated sites substituted most of Linux Journal role in the community, the “cheap as hell” open source users simply jumped ship.
Open Source is thriving, but this is no 1994. Many decry its current shape, specifically the “misuse” —some may go as far as abuse or “exploitation”— by commercial and profit-driven actors. In tech practices many considered nefarious, open source plays a role. It is a political and existential debate which hinges on the dilemma of survival and compromise.
Ironically enough, “sensationalist” portals feed off the corpse of a respectable publication with pieces that unashamedly call Linux users “cheapskates.” (An annual subscription to Linux Journal on digital was $35 USD.)
Still, may the money conundrum not take our energy whole and keep us from pondering the higher meaning of it all. A commenter sentences: “Everyone demands quality journalism, then insists their journalist have a day job.” A tricky question to ask, especially if you consider a sizeable set of counterarguments decrying the diminishing quality of the Journal over the years, often long before they decided to cancel their subscriptions once and for all. Is every professional and devoted content outlet doomed? Was the dwindling quality a symptom of a self-fulfilling prophecy?
Pause for Open EdTech journalism
On a bit of a subjective note, we at LMSPulse continue to believe that all Open Source initiatives deserve all the mutual support we can give. As an online source with close dependency ties with the Open Source space, the news does merit a moment of reflection. (To be sure, we will be the first to admit we can only dream of playing as influential a role Linux Journal played for decades.)
In the search for a new rulebook about thought, change and the ever-present role of education, I’m reminded of my psychoanalysis professor observation on NGOs: Shouldn’t their mission be to render themselves unnecessary? A successful pursuit of their mission would undoubtedly lead to a smaller fraction of society required to pursuit said mission. Contrast that to Open Source, which behaves much like any other solution markets, with wheels being reinvented left and right with no better explanation that just trying to stay relevant.
But Linux Journal did not cease because its mission was accomplished. Rather, it would seem its business model was no longer validated by the marketplace. The NSA episode might be worth revisiting. Advocating for intellectual openness, and appreciating radical views, can easily raise eyebrows. Are there learning benefits from steering away from analytics? If there are, are we willing to eschew student tracking, even if it compromises our survival in the current stage of the software business? And for news outlets, given the fact that so much information is available for free, how much should we rely on controversy to grab eyeballs? (The NSA news did seem to have given Linux Journal a small subscriber push.)
Consider that the Journal’s mission, if not its business strategy, was socially desirable. Then it’s only fair to ask: What would have been necessary to keep it alive and chasing after their mission through quality journalism? And how much at risk is OST journalism and other elements of the ecosystem, especially those bound to live (and die) at the invisible (or just blurry) hand of the marketplace?
Is there a role for journalistic integrity in Open Source EdTech?
Linux Journal’s selected online eulogies
“As a long time print subscriber (until they went all digital, I cancelled), I am sad. Us IT professionals sit in front of computers and devices all day, for our careers and our personal projects, and once a month I truly enjoyed sitting down with a cup of something hot and reading a magazine. No notifications or distractions, just reading.”
“I wonder if they put themselves ‘out in the market’ to be acquired and restructured… or if they just kept everything quiet. I think LJ has good brand recognition and could rebuild in a space that has not been diluted with other offerings.“
“I have a lot of printed Linux Magazine items in my home from 90s. I love to check them time to time for advise and ideas (yes, old stuff continues having value), although my wife it is not so happy because all the space they use.“
“Just to put things in perspective: Before I met my wife, before my children were born, before I started my 11-year-long PhD program, I was writing for Linux Journal. For as long as we have been married, my wife has heard the following, typically several times each month, each time with increased urgency: “I have to work on the column, which was due a few days ago. My editor is going to kill me.”
— Reuven Lerner, writer for Linux Journal
“Yes, it succumbed to the advancement of freely available information. While it’s a shame that good people lost their jobs, the magazine offered nothing above what was already freely published. The same thing happened to Linux Magazine. Linux is one of the best documented operating systems ever made, and there is nothing that a fee-based magazine can offer to top that.”
Resources, References & ‘Ripples’
- An awkward goodbye — Kyle Rankin, final Editor of Linux Journal
- Mirrors: Some users have pledged to make the Linux Journal archive free an open for as long as possible.
- OST-focused journalism still alive