Friday, January 13, 2006

Free news and free software

Mark Kleiman's blog has expanded into a group blog, renaming itself to The Reality-Based Community, and it features some very nice writing while continuing in the centrist, professional, sober adult vein of its originator. Check out this fine filleting of Alito's character -- "a man with an unrelenting instinct for the capillary", very nice.

And here is a post by their resident cynic which addresses the economics of journalism vs. blogging, making an argument similar to one I've made in a different context:
Bloggers often acknowledge that reporting (whatever that is) takes skill. But they commonly slight how much skill, and what kinds, and how much sheer labor goes with the skill. Good beat reporters spend years figuring out whom to call for the crucial fact, how to talk to them, when not to believe them. ....On average, the result of such reporting-as-hobby relates to professional journalism as a soapbox racer relates to a Lexus, and for exactly the same reasons.
Read the whole thing. He bases it around a Walter Lippman piece from 80 years ago -- which indicates that the problems with new economy are not all that new.

Back in the embryonic days of the Free Software movement, long before the more respectable Open Source appelation had been dreamt up, I made a similar argument to RMS. If software was free, said I, how are people who spend their life making software supposed to eat (and I was in grad school at the time, not all that concerned with money, but I always have liked to poke holes in other people's utopian notions). I remained an open-source skeptic for many years. In the early days it seemed to me that free software was parasitizing the work of government- and monopoly-funded research labs (AT&T, MIT, etc) and simply copying their designs (Unix). Innovation wasn't going to happen in open-source land because that required people who could spend their full time at it (researchers in big labs), not hobbyists and enthusiasts.

I seem to have been wrong about that. Free software mutated into open source and metastatized into all sorts of niches and developed its own economy connected to the cash economy, and it seems to have plenty of innovation attached to it.

But note how this happened. Large-scale, high-quality open source is usually not done by solely by part-time hobbyists, it's mostly centerered around teams of full-timers who are supported by an academic institution or by corporations who see FOSS as helping them build cash value elsewhere (IBM and Google seem particularly good at this, but everyone is doing it). So there is no shortage of people who are paid to work on FOSS, and no shortage of innovation (at least when compared alongside the closed-source software world). There is by now a huge non-cash economy swirling around the FOSS world, tightly linked to the cash economy in a variety of ways.

It seems like the news business is in an loosely analagous state. There are free products produced by amateurs, professional groups giving some stuff away and selling the rest (New York Times), and plenty of individual professional writers who use blogs to extend their work and build their reputation by giving some stuff away for free. The amateurs both parasitize the professionals and perform some value-added services.

Eventually, most intellectual work (art, science, design, etc) is going to take place straddling the free and cash economies, with the vaguely-defined reputation economy gluing them together. Businesses and indivduals need to figure out how to mix this stuff. I sure wish I was better at it.

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