Sunday, July 4, 2010

Newspaper tries free software for a day

The Saratogian tried an experiment for Independence Day - run free software for a day, to produce the July 4 2010 issue of their (web and print) newspaper. They called it the Ben Franklin Edition *. The free software experiment is part of the Ben Franklin Project of the Journal Register Company, which owns The Saratogian.

The Ben Franklin Project’s one-shot deal is the preparation of all daily newspapers in the Journal Register Company using free software for publication on the Fourth of July, a symbolic declaration of independence from proprietary software.

Their conclusions at the end of this one-day experiment?
It was hard work. The proprietary software is designed to be efficient, reliable and relative fast for the task of producing a daily newspaper. The free substitutes, not so much.
So, staff at The Saratogian have used Windows software for years and years and years. They moved to Linux for a day and found that things were different, and "different" was hard to learn. Why am I not surprised?

To make it happen, staff had to change behaviors, and learn software that replaced the proprietary systems they had used for every other edition. An example of their work:
News Editor Paul Tackett has been working days and nights, on top of his usual job, to set up most of the day's pages in a layout program called Scribus. [...] For today's print edition, Tackett has duplicated the familiar components of The Saratogian from scratch, with the goal being that you won't know the difference between the look of today's paper and tomorrow's.
To be sure, that was a major effort. Tackett had to spend days to reproduce templates and layouts that have been built up over years in another program. But doing that kind of work would be hard for anyone. It doesn't matter if you move to free software or just another proprietary software package, changing everything is going to be hard. I give this guy huge credit for accomplishing it on time. But I also give kudos out to Scribus for being able to support what he was doing.

You know, moving from one environment that you know really well to one that you don't - it's always hard. We Linux users have trouble, too, moving from Linux to Windows. After all, that's what this blog is about. I did it for my work, and I'm constantly finding things in Windows that just don't work right or work stupidly. Or where features are missing entirely.

Linux is just easier for me. But I've been using Linux at home since 1993, and running Linux at work since 2002. Until 2009, that is, when I was "asked" to move to Windows for work.

This whole "try free software for a day" thing is a neat "publicity stunt within the journalism industry" (their words) but migrating in that short a time is very very hard to do. If you're going to move an organization to free software (or to Linux), there are ways to do it so you won't stress your users too much.

Overall, I'm very glad the editors gave a forum to demonstrate how free software is just as capable as proprietary software in publishing a newspaper. Hopefully, enough of their readers will see through the difficulties in pulling off the "stunt" to recognize that if free software can work for a newspaper, it can work for me.

11 comments:

  1. Agreed. It's dependent on what one is accustomed to. We're creatures of habit, and leaving our comfort zone is never easy. It has been demonstrated that users who started with Linux have a hard time adjusting to Windows, and vice-versa.

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  2. I bet you a dollar, the very first day they used their current software they didn't find it "efficient, reliable and relative fast".

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  3. "staff at The Saratogian have used Windows software for years and years and years"

    Poor they!!!

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  4. After all that effort, they aren't going for a longer period?? yikes, it was just a publicity stunt... unless others, like yourself, point out it was not only possible, but do-able!
    How about some other particulars...did those using MS Office switch to OOo? What other software was used? I notice you say "free" and not necessarily "open." Did you switch operating systems as well?

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  5. revdjennk: Only a few software packages were named:

    - Scribus for page layout

    - "free software instead of Photoshop" implies the GIMP

    - reporters filed their stories using Google Docs

    Since they include Google Docs in their list, I think they took "free" in this context to be "zero cost" rather than "freely available", "freely (re)distributable", and "open". That it happened to include other F/OSS programs (Scribus, GIMP) confuses things a little, but in the end it's a good thing.

    In the end, the paper probably doesn't care what the reporters use to write their stories, so long as the editor is able to read their files and put them into the layout template. So OpenOffice would have worked just as well as Google Docs.

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  6. And no, I don't think they switched operating systems for this. That would have been a much bigger undertaking, longer than a one-day event.

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  7. For all the difficulties they had, it proves one thing pretty conclusively: The issue of the paper made it. They transitioned from paid software they were familiar with, to more or less alien zero-cost software, and it worked. It shows the world that despite the work it takes to migrate, in the end, the job still gets done, and that people and companies don't need to splash out thousands on expensive software licenses.

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  8. Yes, that is definitely something that should not get lost in all this:

    THE SARATOGIAN SUCCESSFULLY PUT OUT A NEWSPAPER AT THE END OF THE DAY, USING FREE TOOLS.

    And I mentioned it in my article, but I'll say it again: huge kudos to the production team for using those free tools to make everything look as though nothing had changed. It's not easy to learn a new tool and put out a newspaper on time, but they did it.

    I'm also thrilled to see a demonstration that free software got the job done. Overall, I'm very glad the editors gave a forum to demonstrate how free software is just as capable as proprietary software in publishing a newspaper. Hopefully, enough of their readers will see through the difficulties in pulling off the "stunt" to recognize that if free software can work for a newspaper, it can work for me.

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  9. You know, this is kind of neat to see.

    It's actually funny, because this indeed is a great undertaking and they were successful. The only thing I am at odds with, is that open source software is indeed set on being Efficient and reliable as well.

    I've been a Linux user for about a year and a half now, switching over from Windows. The -only- learning curve I had to overcome was simply architectural. Things are different in Linux than in Windows. I've used Photoshop. I've used GIMP. Both are powerful, and what you could do in one, you could do in the other.

    Familiarity is the biggest gap in attempting to use free software in a day. You're hopping from driving Automatic to Standard. There's another element involved, but the control is nice- and yes, it is difficult at first.

    Bah. I'm rambling. /end

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  10. Anon is giving a "car" analogy, but I really don't see your "automatic" vs "standard" comparison.

    Look, Linux is just as easy to use as Windows. I'd even say it's easier to use than Windows. The only learning curve is application layer (button labels, menu items, etc.)

    Back to your "car" analogy - it's not about "manual" vs "automatic" (that implies Linux require manual steps - which it hasn't since about 2000, btw so did Windows at the time). It's about VW vs Ford, or even import vs domestic/American. The car runs the same, but the switch to turn on the lights might be in a slightly different place, and the color for the turn signal indicator may not be the same. The dashboard will have different lights, but it's still a car, and anyone who's driven a car can drive this one, and figure out the "knob" and "button" locations pretty quickly.

    So anyone who's used a PC can use Linux.

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  11. I normally don't wish to argue these sort of things- and I will say this not for the sake of argument, but to elaborate on what I meant to say.

    My mother always told me, that as a driver you should appreciate Manual more because you have the ability to downshift/drift/upshift as you deem fit. I think she's right.

    That is how I see Linux. Windows is put off as easier by a lot of people because there's never a need to compile most applications (as I have had to do with some niche apps). But- you have more control over what you do in Linux. Most GUI apps have a terminal counterpart controlling them (or vice-versa). Not running the -exact- way you want it? Looking for some sort of optimization? NO problem! Compile it :D

    It's the beauty and charm of it. It is easy if you want it to be- or you can get your hands dirty as much as you want and fix it up, shape it, mold it. Etc.

    Maybe the analogy I gave is not the most correct one, but I hope you now know what I meant.

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