If it happens in America, it's news. Else...

February 4, 2003

If you get 10 journalists in a room - and I mean hard-core newsmen - and ask each for his or her definition of what constitutes news, you'd probably get 10 different definitions. The truth is, there are many factors that govern what qualifies as news - the location of a publication, the orientation of the government, the orientation of the paper's editor and so on.

But it is rarely that a paper buries its head in the sand and seemingly changes policy overnight - only to revert back to its old policy when the right set of circumstances arise. That would either mean that the people running the show are A-grade dickheads who know nothing about news or that there are reasons other than merit for the change of stance.

On the Internet, the concept of news is more sham than anything else. So-called "news" sites thrive on quoting other publications without doing a shred of work themselves. In the same way as the emperor in Hans Christian Andersen's famous story came to believe that he was clothed in the finest garb, when in reality the man was starkers, such sites even go to the extent of using bylines to hawk other people's stories. Simple - grab a few paragraphs, add a by-line, and link to the other man's story which was produced through sheer hard work.

But when news changes to non-news, then at times such sites stand exposed. The problem is the people who frequent such sites often miss the woods for the trees - lemmings follow the leader and this pack is no different.

Two weeks back, a major Linux conference took place in Perth, Western Australia. At the same time, a major Linux trade show, Linuxworld, was held in New York. Every Linux site based in the US carried at least one report every day about the New York event. This, despite the fact that the event was basically a meeting of suits (for whom geeks profess scorn) who passed the time of day by making commercial announcements every time the clock struck the hour.

Linx.conf.au, the Perth event, played host to the creator of Linux, Linus Torvalds. Along with him were the best known kernel hacker Alan Cox, the leader of the Debian GNU/Linux project Bdale Garbee, the bootloader man Peter Anvin, Paul Russell (the iptables man), PHP creator Rasmus Lerdorf, Samba creator Andrew Tridgell and a host of others. (A full list is here).

Anyone who has read thus far would immediately spring to the conclusion that this gathering would have rated much more coverage at sites which flaunt themselves as proponents of free and open source software. The shameful truth is that little or nothing appeared. Suddenly, it looked like the suits were the Linux story, not the hackers.

But wait, the story doesn't end there. To understand the level of insularity which is a hallmark of sites like Slashdot, read on: nearly 10 days after the Perth conference ended, the director of the Open Source Development Network, Jeff Bates, who had also attended it, returned to the US. OSDN owns Slashdot, among other sites.

Suddenly, the Perth conference was news. Big news. It was splashed all over Slashdot as though it was breaking news. None of the so-called army of industrious staff at Slashdot bothered to look around and pick up some newsbytes while the conference was on. But the moment an American came back and provided some links - and what's more the man is their owner - brother, does it haemorrhage from the ears.

Slashdot prides itself on being a site providing "news for nerds." This time it's proved that it's not a news site, not interested in nerds and extremely poor at differentiating between the messenger and the message. I can suggest a better slogan - "if it happens in America, it's news. Else we couldn't give a damn."