The Great Restructuring

Posted on March 15, 2009. Filed under: Public Square, Uncategorized |

I know this blog is focused on South Asia, and this will be a digression from that overarching theme, but as someone who hopes to make journalism his profession, I feel compelled to make some mention of Clay Shirky’s latest analysis of the newspaper business. This is a Must Read for anyone interested in the business.

The problem newspapers face isn’t that they didn’t see the internet coming. They not only saw it miles off, they figured out early on that they needed a plan to deal with it, and during the early 90s they came up with not just one plan but several.

Indeed, newspapers did all sorts of things to try and make money online, but there was one problem with most of these plans.

As these ideas were articulated, there was intense debate about the merits of various scenarios. Would DRM or walled gardens work better? Shouldn’t we try a carrot-and-stick approach, with education and prosecution? And so on. In all this conversation, there was one scenario that was widely regarded as unthinkable, a scenario that didn’t get much discussion in the nation’s newsrooms, for the obvious reason.

The unthinkable scenario unfolded something like this: The ability to share content wouldn’t shrink, it would grow. Walled gardens would prove unpopular. Digital advertising would reduce inefficiencies, and therefore profits. Dislike of micropayments would prevent widespread use. People would resist being educated to act against their own desires. Old habits of advertisers and readers would not transfer online.

If you read the post you’ll understand better that the way the fifth estate has survived in the last four centuries by occupying a peculiar crack between being an integral, governmental body (BBC, PBS) and having to make a profit acting as both a middleman (advertising medium) and content provider, with most of the money coming from the former.

When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie.

That will no longer last in the age of the internet. Advertisers have found better and other ways to peddle their wares, for now at least. News organizations must now either put money into becoming better middlemen, or try and get their content to pay for itself.

And that doesn’t mean a paid model; Paywalls, micropayments, etc. won’t work, except in specific niches (WSJ, Consumer Reports). So what then?

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.

We don’t know who the Aldus Manutius of the current age is. It could be Craig Newmark, or Caterina Fake. It could be Martin Nisenholtz, or Emily Bell. It could be some 19 year old kid few of us have heard of, working on something we won’t recognize as vital until a decade hence. Any experiment, though, designed to provide new models for journalism is going to be an improvement over hiding from the real, especially in a year when, for many papers, the unthinkable future is already in the past.

For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the reporting we need.

The title of this post comes from Jeff Jarvis’ rather grand idea.

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3 Responses to “The Great Restructuring”

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I must admit, I find it quite amusing when people literally freak out about the print editions of periodicals dying. I understand that change is scary. But I find it exciting myself as a current journalism student. When I hear about these changes, and needs for something different, I feel that we will be the ones to make this change and find what will work. I definitely think it will be that unknown 19-year-old that will find hope among this stressful time.

Ultimately, you would have to concede to the truth that if consumers (for one reason or another) feel as though purchasing cherry-picked articles or headlines through micro-payments benefits them moreso than buying a newspaper as a whole, then it is only inevitable that such will happen. However, from a personal perspective, I would rather subscribe to a favorite news media (say NY Times) and glance through every single article with the hope of stumbling on something interesting. I wouldn’t be surprised to if many more consumers out there felt the same. I doubt every single consumer will feel the same way, however. I’m guessing both forms of news media transmission will coexist, each taking at least some of the market shares of the other.

Very interesting article. As someone who has always enjoyed printed newspaper over online editions guess you analysis worries me. On the other hand I think we are heading towards a paperless world (good for the environment bad for my morning coffee routine). I do agree with you that journalism will continue to adapt and grow because people will always need quality reporting on important issues, which amateur reporters can’t give society. I do imagine there will always be some print newspaper available, the number will continue to shrink.


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