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Monday, 24 January 2011 18:14

LCA 2011: Lessons from 13 years of web publishing


Linux Weekly News is, probably, the best known website for geeks from the Linux community when they look for their quota of news about the community.

This, despite the fact that the website is not free for at least two weeks after the articles generated by its staff are posted.

In a world where it is believed that people will not pay for things on the internet, this is something of a paradox. But as the editor of the site, Jonathan Corbet, tells it, his readers are incredibly loyal and he did not even lose subscribers during the financial crisis of 2008.

Corbet had an interesting tale to relate - of 13 years of managing LWN - as one of the speakers at the mini-conference on the Business of Open Source, at the 12th Australian national Linux conference this afternoon.

After working for more than a decade at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, he became a bit restless in the mid-90s as he began to realise that there was little correlation between the work he put in and the rewards he earned.

Initially, when Corbet got tuned into the internet boom in the mid-90s, he says he did not know in which direction to go. He had started messing with Linux (the kernel) in 1993 as he thought it was a project that would go places.

He first went in for Linux consulting but, on the side, decided to have a website as well to show his cleverness. The site was named LWN then but did not have its own domain; it ran as a sub-directory of, using Corbet's own broadband connection.

Corbet then went in for Linux support, changed to Linux training, became a Red Hat support partner and then, when that did not work out either, though he would do online news.

"The lessons I learned were that business skills matter," he said. "Have some idea of where your money comes from, pay attention to your customers' likes and and be ready to change your plans."

Corbet and his business cohorts tried to get acquired and received seven letters of intent. Others who wanted to submit letters of intent were turned away. Internal disputes nearly derailed the deal but finally LWN was acquired by Tucows.

But soon after this the dot-com crash occurred, hence most of the acquisition money was returned. And following on was the terrorist attack on the US which did not make business conditions any better.

Corbet has an aversion to advertising, hence he opted not to go down the route of making LWN an advertiser-supported site. "Advertising is highly cyclical and you have to be prepared for boom and bust," he said.

"Additionally, in the end, your real customer is the advertiser. This will distort your business."

He said there was a potential loss of control, especially with ad networks. "You can block specific things only when you know about them."

Corbet cited the case of ads in support of Proposition 8 - a move by California to block gay marriage - which were running when readers of LWN in California accessed the site. He could not see them as LWN is in Colorado.

An additional factor that made him avoid the advertising model was because readers of LWN are, by and large, not impressed by ads.

Donations did not work for him either as a sum of $US35,000 donated to the site was withheld by the credit card company with whom he was dealing; the rationale was that the money could be from a fraudulent source.

This was in 2002. Corbet thought of shutting shop altogether. Luckily for all the patrons who enjoy the site today, he decided to try out a subscription model. He hasn't had reason to regret.

LWN supports three full-time staff today and has a number of freelance contributors. Corbet says that at the time of the global financial crisis a number of other FOSS-oriented websites went under, thus freeing up many writers, some of whom contribute to his site.

There are several thousand individual subscriptions but more than 100 companies are also on the lists, with their subscriptions meant for their staff to utilise. Corbet is extremely popular with his readers and figures that he needs to run the site from a community angle as well.

However, there are some reasons why he says his model doesn't work. "Smaller audiences, people still don't want to pay for news on the web and we are very bad salesmen," he said with a grin.

One measure of how loyal his readership is can be gauged by his raising prices by 40 percent last year and not losing a single subscription.


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Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.





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