Dave Whitinger: Inventing Linux News Reporting

by Tom Adelstein

Several years ago, when people called Linux a fledgling operating system, I met Dave Whitinger, founder of Linux Today. Surprisingly, we both lived in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. We met in a cafe in McKinney, Texas and spent an afternoon discussing Linux. During the next year, we became friends. He introduced me to many of the people I know in the Linux community. We ran into each other at Linux events and spoke on the phone often.

Despite being the creator of what we think of as Linux news, Whitinger spent the last couple of years out of sight of the community. Dave took an imposed vacation from the moment-by-moment postings of his popular web site when he sold Linux Today to Internet.com. In retrospect, his timing looks impeccable. Soon after the sell, the NASDAQ took a deep plunge. Dave looked like a genius at financial management as well as web site development. Jupiter media now owns Internet.com and runs a tight ship. I have to wonder if Dave would have had the freedom to create his news site had he not started it himself.

Today, he's back and publishing another Linux news site. More competition exists now than when he was almost all alone in the field. Dave's re-entry into the community he never really left may be another example of good timing. Linux continues to gain momentum in every quarter and Whitinger knows that content is king. He's also adding new kinds of interactive technology to his site.

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Dave's return to the limelight started with his new site, LXer.com. After some preliminary catching up, he finally agreed to do an interview with me. Out of the Linux spotlight, he has created web sites such as Dave's Garden, the largest database of plant listings and images in the world. He admits his passion for Linux, though. Fortunately, we have him back.

Tom Adelstein: When I first met you in 1999 you had just started Linux Today. Tell us something about your start up--the beginnings.

Dave Whitinger: It goes back to about a year before Linux Today was founded, as I was working for Red Hat in their marketing department. One of my side projects was to publish an internal web page of Linux-related news announcements and links to news articles that mentioned Linux. News articles that mentioned Linux back in 1997 were a huge deal.

After leaving Red Hat in December of 1997, I continued to publish my news through an email list that was also mirrored on a small web page.

Around August of 1998, Dwight Johnson emailed me and suggested that we collaborate on a real Linux news web site financed with advertisements from companies who wanted to target Linux users and developers. Without thinking much about it, I agreed, and off we went. My little Linux news site got a new domain name, new code, and a new logo.

Clearly the time was right for a good hourly Linux newswire, as within three weeks we were sustaining around 30,000 page views per day. Of course, within a year, we were doing millions of page views and almost half a million readers per month. It was a fun ride.

TA: We could say you exemplified the success of the early Linux surge. What did you notice about the first round of IPOs?

DW: I joined the Linux community back in 1995, when I put away my OS/2 Warp desktop and gave Slackware Linux a try. I knew we had something special, and felt like it would be "the next big thing" in technology. I wanted to be a part of the best of the best, so I joined Red Hat in 1997.

I remember walking into Bob Young's office as he was literally giddy with delight that he had just obtained a million dollars from an investor. I asked what he had to give in return for the million, and Bob exclaimed: "Only one third of the company!" I nearly fainted with grief, that such a huge portion of such a promising and valuable company had been given away for pennies. At that point, Bob Young didn't know, but many in the Linux community knew, that there was some very serious money potential in Linux.

Just as Netscape launched the .com financial bubble, Red Hat launched the Linux financial bubble.

The time leading up to Red Hat's offering was fast and furious. Red Hat's investor portfolio read like a Who's Who of technology. When the IPO finally came, nobody was really surprised at its smashing success, although the mainstream press reported it as a real oddity.

It was a unique time that, in many ways, I am glad is finished. That pace can only be sustained for so long.

TA: How did your business reflect start-up qualities?

DW: We never borrowed or spent much money. What we did was work with the resources we had and did as good a job with what we had as possible. I continued to work at my corporate job during the first six months. We did no paid advertising. It was basically a typical organic-growth-oriented company that only grew fast because of the incredible demand, and lack of supply, for our product.

TA: I saw you in New York, right after you sold Linux Today, but I never got the scoop. Do you want to tell me now what happened?

DW: A variety of companies started approaching us at the end of the summer (1999) wanting to buy us. Being a father with a new child, I welcomed the security involved with selling the business and continuing to operate it, getting a steady paycheck.

We did finally sell to Internet.com, but I didn't stay with the company. Leaving Linux Today is in my top-three list of largest lifetime regrets.

TA: Now you have started LXer.com. Are you back for the next surge?

DW: The timing of the foundation of LXer wasn't based on so much a surge, as simply agreements expiring.

I had a three-year agreement with Internet.com that I would not start a new Linux news site. I also felt like I had a commitment to LWN.net that I wouldn't start anything until 2003 ended.

You know, Linux rocks. I think you and I are the types that are here for the love of the game (or computer system), not the money, per se. If there is another financial surge coming, that's fun, and it'll help us get even more work done. If not, then that's cool, too. I'm here because I have been waiting to re-enter the Linux community, making the kinds of contributions that I do best.

TA: What's different about the market now?

DW: I really don't think we're heading back into a big Linux financial surge. My guess is that the industry around Linux is maturing and it is becoming a necessary piece of technology with which to conduct business operations. The Google IPO might re-ignite some activity, but I think it'll be muted.

Linux continues to make good business sense; in this regard, nothing has changed. There remains a virtually infinite amount of business possibilities in this industry.

TA: Dave, LT had some innovative technology that allowed you to create an hourly newswire for Linux. Please share with us how you created your site and the kinds of applications you used.

DW: The acronym CMS, for Content Management System, was basically unheard of at the time, so the only choice was the "roll your own" approach, and it's just what we did.

PHP wasn't really used much yet at that time, and the language of choice was Perl. We examined a variety of different Apache-Perl tools and ultimately settled on mod_perl. To build Linux Today, I actually had to first learn how to program in Perl. I read a Perl and MySQL tutorial at WebMonkey (I'm pretty sure it was this one: webmonkey.wired.com/webmonkey/backend/databases/tutorials/tutorial1.html).

After studying the tutorial, I created a basic Linux news web site that had one table for stories and one table for talkbacks. I also wrote a few admin tools for posting stories into that table, and then wrote two or three scripts that would show the stories to the visitors. I remember the whole process taking about three days, from reading the tutorial to launching the site. It was a busy three days.

Three weeks after launch, I learned about the need for optimization when we had a big story that was linked from some big sites, including Slashdot. At that point, I implemented a caching system so that stories could be easily served without crashing the server each time we had 10,000 visitors in an hour.

Later on, PHP 3 was released, and I rewrote the entire site in PHP and implemented a much fancier system where users could log in and customize their own news. Perl is a great language and I still enjoy it, but PHP is the language of the Web.

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 LWN.net 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 LXer.com.

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 LXer.com 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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