Free, as in free speech

I use free and open source software, almost exclusively, when I practice journalism.

Free and open source software is counter-intuitive to many, but the mantra of the free software movement uses terms that journalists should understand very well.

Free software is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of free as in free speech, not as in free beer.

It’s a philosophy. It’s about transparency, openness and honesty. You are encouraged to know the inner workings of your tools, and make them better when you find them lacking. There are no secrets, no magic, and no mysterious blue screens of death.

The great thing is, it’s also free like “free beer.” Considering the financial mess this business is in, it should be clear that if journalism is to survive as a profession, it needs to cut costs. It needs to adopt free software.

*Off soap box.*

If you’re lucky, you work at an organization that already uses free and open source tools on the servers, but it’s unlikely that anyone you know uses them on the desktop. This is not because the tools are inferior. It’s because the geeks don’t have a marketing machine like Microsoft or Apple.

Here’s my very short list of free and open source software for journalists.

DesktopUbuntu Linux

Ubuntu is the first really good free operating system. The best way to go free is to start with a solid foundation. It’s secure, virus-free, and best of all, easy to use. Apple’s OS X is prettier, and to be honest, easier to use, but it’s not free, and you’ve got to own a Mac to use it. Ubuntu runs great on any computer, even one that’s getting a little elderly – unlike Windows Vista, an operating system so bloated that computers for sale today don’t run it well.

If you’re not ready to make the leap to Linux, every single one of the following applications will also work on Windows and OS X, so there’s no excuse to not try them out.

Writing, spreadsheets, is just like Microsoft Office, but free. It’s only drawback is that it doesn’t play nicely with Microsoft’s newest .docx, .xlsx, etc. file formats. But the older versions of Microsoft Word and Excel have the same problem, so you’ll be in the same boat as most Office users. It’s going to be a long time until those formats take hold, and by then will certainly have caught up. on Ubuntu Linux

Image editingThe Gimp

Unless you’re a professional graphic artist, all the of the image manipulation you might do in Adobe Photoshop can be done in The Gimp. It’s a brilliant tool.

The Gimp on Ubuntu Linux

Web browsingMozilla Firefox

At this point, you’ve probably heard of Firefox. Maybe you’ve even switched away from Internet Explorer. If you haven’t, give it a shot. It’s more secure, more extensible, and more pleasant to use. On this one, you’re not making any compromises. It’s better, flat-out.

EmailMozilla Thunderbird

Maybe I’m old-school, but I still like having an email client on my desktop. If you’re like me and you don’t yet live in Gmail, Thunderbird is an excellent choice.

Sanity preservationSubversion

This one deserves its own article. Subversion is what keeps me from freaking out every time I have to pull my laptop out to go through airport security. Everything I write, all of my notes, resources, and photographs – Subversion enables me to easily copy them out to a secure server online. It does a lot more than that, but I love it most because it makes my computer disposable. If someone ganks my gear at the airport (or if I spill my coffee on it), I know my work is out there, ready to pull down to another machine.

For more on what Ubuntu can do for you, check out the docs at If you dig it, you don’t need to install anything. You can boot up Ubuntu and give it a spin just by putting the disc in when you start your computer. So what’s stopping you? Try it out!

If you love it and are ready for more, check out Lifehacker’s Ubuntu coverage for gobs more fun.

7 thoughts on “Free, as in free speech

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  2. You a fan of VirtualBox at all? I think it’s worth adding to the Desktop/OS discussion as it lets your system run nearly any other operating system without rebooting. Great for running Windows on Linux or vice versa. In my case, I can run Windows and Linux inside Mac OS X. You also get the nice features like suspending and checkpointing. And yes, it’s released under GNU GPL as open source software. My desk (as in real desk) would never be so clean without it…

  3. Hey, Dan!

    I keep a Windows XP partition on my machine because the *awful* CMS we use at Medill requires Active X controls, so I’m forced to keep Windows and Internet Explorer around. Bleh.

    Right now I boot to it, but I’ve been working on running the partition in VMWare – so far with little success. It’s a slightly tricky setup.

    I have not used Virtual Box – but after checking it out – it looks pretty neat. Maybe it’ll work better – I’ll check it out!

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