Shirky to Newspapers: It’s a Revolution… Deal With It!

by Emily W. Sussman

When a New Media blogger as influential as Craig Stoltz (whose Web2.0h…Really? was ranked one of Time‘s Top 25 Blogs) confers PnR status on an article — shorthand for print and read, i.e., worthy of taking up three-dimensional space — you know you’d better sit up and pay attention.

In this case, Stoltz was referring to Clay Shirky’s March 15 post, “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” a piece that many are already calling a seminal piece on the rise and fall (and ultimate triumph) of the newspaper industry.

Shirky — NYU professor; contributor to Wired, the NYT, the WSJ, and Harvard Business Review; author of last year’s  Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations — is no slouch in the world of New Media-crit himself.

My Synopsis of “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable”

Back in the 90′s, newspaper publishers made all the wrong assumptions about the Internet. They thought walled content, copyright law, micropayments and traditional advertising models would ensure that their digital transition would be angst-free, and moreover, just as profitable as print. When reality didn’t bear out that way, they continued repeating these beliefs like deluded cult members, banishing those who dared dissent “into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse.”

But fast-forward to 2009: clearly, that kind of “enthusiastic grasping at straws” has resulted in the industry’s utter financial collapse, i.e. the “unthinkable” in the post’s title. Shirky blames the industry for its initially willful and prideful ignorance, which morphed into desperate mythmaking. But really, the fault is universal: in demanding reassurance that its valued institutions would remain intact, the public has been complicit in the masquerade. Shirky points out that:

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.

Fortuitously —and, Shirky takes pains to emphasize, utterly accidentally — in the print model, advertisers had subsidized the high costs of doing journalism. But when the Internet came along, poof! went that commercial bankrolling of public service (and whoomph! went the bloated corpse of newspapers hitting the ground).

Get over it. Here’s Shirky’s bottom line: Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.

Breathing new life into the latter will require nothing less than a complete paradigm shift, Shirky points out. It won’t happen overnight, and won’t happen at all unless we not learn to live with the discomfort of uncertainty — and along with it, the promise and hope inherent in unbridled experimentation. And if we don’t?

“Save society,” Shirky muses, should prove to be a pretty effective rallying cry.

Broader Implications of the Piece

Shirky’s tough love is actually a much-needed jolt of optimism (let’s embrace our freedom from the institution of newspapers, and its opportunity for innovation, rather than bemoan it), but I’m not sure I would throw the baby out with the bathwater. In fact, I’d argue that newspapers are more relevant than ever: in the undifferentiated mass of information that confronts us daily, they’ll serve as a credential, a mark of authority.

When all the reporters have been issued their pink slips, there will still be editors minding the flagship institution — akin, perhaps, to a historical society’s board of directors. Funded philanthropically, they’ll preserve their institutions’ legacy by repositioning themselves as The Arbiters of Credibility — after all, isn’t that what editors (being the smartest and most discerning among us) have always done?

Functionally, this would work out as newspaper brands “endorsing,” or vetting, the most credible and analytical of user-generated/blog content (perhaps in the form of aggregation; perhaps by licensing their logo). Not all citizen journalism is created equal, and they’re the perfect ones to set the standards.

We’ll see. In the wise (and apparently gymnastics-ready) words of 1980s supergroup Asia, only time will tell.

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One response to “Shirky to Newspapers: It’s a Revolution… Deal With It!

  1. Pingback: » The Information Business is in Trouble and Teens Like Everything in One Place Innovative in Education

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