Thoughts on Two Must-Reads
Journalists are by nature a disputatious lot, so it’s rare to find them in widespread agreement on anything. But those trying to map the newspaper industry’s rough transition to the digital age have spoken virtually unanimous on this: Clay Shirky’s Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable is to be read and digested and read again.
Shirky explains, with a clear and unflinching gaze, how various scenarios mapped out by newspapers in the 1990s didn’t come to pass, while the unthinkable scenario — the one that would destroy the print-newspaper model — did. And he explains (with a refreshing lack of axes to grind) that the arrangement old newspaper hands came to regard as a law of physics was something else entirely: The economics of printing made newspapers the only viable way for advertisers to reach a mainstream audience, creating a situation where, in effect, “Wal-Mart was willing to subsidize the Baghdad bureau. This wasn’t because of any deep link between advertising and reporting, nor was it about any real desire on the part of Wal-Mart to have their marketing budget go to international correspondents. It was just an accident.” And, Shirky adds, ramming the point home: “That the relationship between advertisers, publishers and journalists has been ratified by a century of cultural practice doesn’t make it any less accidental.”
But most of Shirky’s post is about the future: “Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know ‘If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?’ To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.” And, a bit later on, he notes that “[t]hat is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread.”
It’s a sober-minded take, but not a despairing one. The way to strengthen journalism, Shirky writes, is to conduct a lot of little experiments, to find the Craiglists and the Wikipedias that will, in time, create new models and new social contracts.
The bookend to Shirky’s post is a speech delivered by Steven Johnson at South by Southwest. In it, Johnson uses his late-1980s routine of hanging around a Providence, R.I., bookstore waiting for the latest MacWorld as a jumping-off point for exploring what’s happening to journalism. He looks at the transformation of journalism about technology and politics in order to predict what may happen to more mainstream journalism. Why is tech journalism a good predictor? “Because it is the old-growth forest of the web,” Johnson explains. “It is the sub-genre of news that has had the longest time to evolve.”
From there, Johnson uses tech and politics to explore what he sees as a new ecosystem of news, one in which there are many more sources of information to choose from than there used to be, but also much more noise to filter out. And here, he suggests, is journalism’s way forward: to serve as an authoritative guide to help readers find the useful information out there. “If [newspapers] embrace this role as an authoritative guide to the entire ecosystem of news, if they stop paying for content that web is already generating on its own, I suspect in the long run they will be as sustainable and as vital as they have ever been,” he writes.
These two articles weren’t designed as bookends, but they’re admirably complementary. They’re clear-eyed about what’s happened but also point the way forward, even while firmly insisting that a path is more to be found than followed. I hope they will be read and re-read in journalism circles, by men and women in corner offices and on newsroom floors.
What’s the lesson to be drawn from them? I’d summarize it like this:
Stop thinking of where you work as a newspaper. This is not the same as abandoning the print paper — only the idea that it’s the pillar of what you do has to go. The business model for print newspapers that we all grew up with is splintering, and there is no business model for Web newspapers that will replace it — that’s our industry’s Godot, so quit waiting for it.
Start thinking of where you work as a venture-capital shop. Compared with other competitors in the news industry, you have some advantages: a big audience, smart people with hard-to-replace skills, and money. It’s time to get your house in order technologically and culturally, and fund a host of start-up experiments — experiments based not on what you think you need but on what readers are demonstrating they want. A lot of those experiments will fail. But some of them will succeed — and the ones that do will open up new possibilities. And the time to start is right now.