The Rochester Institute of Technology School of Printing Management and Sciences awarded the 2002
Isaiah Thomas Award in Publishing during a breakfast event at Seybold Seminars this morning. This year’s recipient is Tim O’Reilly, founder and president of technical publisher
O’Reilly & Associates.
Isaiah Thomas — ‘Patriot Publisher’
The award itself is sponsored by Xerox and presented annually by the Rochester Institute of Technology. O’Reilly is the 23rd recipient of the award, joining a list of prestigious figures including presidents and CEO of companies like Knight-Ridder Inc., New York Times Company, Heart Corp., Hart-Hanks Communications and many others.
The award is named after the “Patriot Printer” who is credited with helping to stir rebellion among American colonists during the struggle for independence from Britain through his publication of his newspaper, The Massachusetts Spy . He is also credited with producing the first American type specimen, printing the first American novel and founding the American Antiquarian Society to help preserve early American culture.
During the hour-long event, O’Reilly’s accomplishments were lauded by a number of guest speakers including industry analyst Paul Hits, technology writer Clay Shirky and New York Times technology columnist David Pogue.
“This is embarrassing and quite gratifying,” said the modest O’Reilly, who noted that he felt “like a frog” in the shadows of some of the award’s former recipients.
O’Reilly has been cited as an activist for Internet standards and open source software and he’s published a number of books he’s written on various Unix and Internet-related technologies. In addition to his work as a publisher and writer, O’Reilly has served on the boards of trustees for the Internet Society and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He’s also on the boards of CollabNet, ActiveState Tool Corp. and Webb Inc.
Sees his business as ‘outsiders’
On the success of his own company, O’Reilly mused, “we were outsiders who didn’t know any better.” At the time his company began publishing material, O’Reilly noted that the technology publishing industry had largely bifurcated into two segments: trade books designed for users of mass commercial software and high-end academic texts published by companies that largely catered to universities and research institutions.
“Publishing is about being an intermediary,” said O’Reilly. “Publishers are stepdown transformers in the process of people finding each other.”
“We’re not just about computers or computer books,” said O’Reilly, “We’re really about solving information problems. Our core mission is transferring information from people to have it to people who need it.”
O’Reilly also opined that online media will never supplant the printed word. “I have yet to see a case where a new technology has completely obseleted an old one,” he said.
O’Reilly expresses some hopeful idealism in an industry that is — especially in the midst of serious economic downturn — ultimately obsessed with the bottom line. “[The publishing industry] is too full of fear. The fundamental problems that we solve as an industry are important tasks. We may not get it all ourselves; we may not win in the economic battles; but we have to keep our focus on doing what we do.”
“Publishing is about the love of ideas. It’s about connecting people with those ideas. It’s not just about winning and making the big bucks. Remember what it’s about — discovering people with ideas, and getting those ideas out to people that need them,” O’Reilly continued.
On the future
O’Reilly suggested that the secret to his own success has been being “open to being surprised, and not having a fixed idea about what’s interesting.”
He quoted science fiction author William Gibson, as well. “The future is here, it’s just not widely distributed yet … The Internet amplifies our ability to listen. It amplifies our ability to see and recognize people who are doing interesting work.”