Clay Shirky On What Will Save Newspapers: “Nothing. Nothing Will Work”

Mar 14th, 2009 | By | Category: Commentary

Clay Shirky has published an interesting essay looking at the “unthinkable future” of news, where the Internet removes barriers to publishing and increases competition, making the traditional model of newspaper publishing beyond saving:

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.

With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem

Shirky’s right. Many of the problem that the traditional newspapers model solved are gone.

The photo above is of a printing press for a small paper – the West Coast Messenger. The presses that print major papers are complete beasts compared to this press.

What’s going to keep those behemoths running, when you can publish the same information – to the world – for nearly nothing?

Nothing’s going to keep those presses going, and nobody knows what’s going to replace traditional news organizations yet.

Shirky adds:

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.

It’s a fascinating time – one full of chaos, destruction and invention.

Are you taking part in one of those experiments that will create the future of news?

Image: electro8

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4 Responses to “Clay Shirky On What Will Save Newspapers: “Nothing. Nothing Will Work””

  1. msbpodcast says:

    The future of news won’t change a bit. It’ll still need journalists, editors and fact-checkers.

    The short-term challenge will be “how do we compete with ‘free’?” (The ‘net has grown from a “gift economy” because it was always so much cheaper than traditional media, “might as well give it away as part of the advertising budget.”.)

    The longer term challenge will be “how do we pay for ‘nearly free’?” (Micropayments run counter to everything intermediaries [banks & other credit institutions] believe in…)

    Solving the second means that we can live with the first; by giving away some information (with some advertissment, “A la” Hulu.com,) and nearly giving away more in-depth coverage and analysis.

    This can be easily done through the use of something like “The Postal Service.”

  2. To be honest, Shirky’s cries are that of an academic. And I say that as a former academic. He fails to understand that:

    1) people are tactile and enjoy the feel and smell of the newspaper. And perhaps enjoy the experience of magazines even more.
    2) he fails to face of to the fact that again and again through history people love nostalgia. The experience of the Sunday newspaper is extremely nostalgic–for some people I’m certain its close to a primal urge. 20 years ago, who would have thought there would be a market for wax records in 2008???
    3) He fails to come face to face with empirical models of cases of print media saving themselves. For instance, innovative magazines like the Readers Digest is creating magazines based on a package service that includes both print and digital. Ultimately, this is a far better solution comparatively than just going online because CPM rates aren’t exactly high, which means the Readers Digest magazines can win even in a world that they aren’t dominating in the Google search rankings.
    4) His arguments don’t account for old people. Old people are certainly going online, but in select niches and not with extreme regularity.
    5) His arguments don’t account for rural areas where internet. He lives inside the bubble that is NYC. (I’m not surprised that this argument is probably lost on Carr too)
    6) Timing. You can only stair at a computer screen for so long. You can certainly look at the print edition for longer.
    7) Reading styles. Personal preferences and reading styles dictate that some folks will just like the experience they get from print.

    Ultimately over the longer term the newspapers as a whole are probably on the decline, but its a much larger time frame than Shirky might suggest. Utlimately, his thesis that newspapers should re-examine their current trajectory is probably sage advice, but his thesis is certainly clouded by his membership in the Twitter-ati and NYC academia. Great article!

  3. […] Clay Shirky suggests nothing can. I disagree strongly. To be honest, Shirky’s cries are that of an […]

  4. Anthony Dew says:

    Unfortunately such views as those published above are generated by “1st world thinkers”. What is actually most relevant is the ‘drivers’ behind the newspaper publishing and printing industry globally. I am based in Africa. I have been involved in newspaper publishing and printing in Africa for almost 35 years. The newspaper publishing and printing industry in Africa is growing every year as it is in many other continents. Typically on continents where there is political or civil strife the media is always under pressure but when these strife’s are overcome the newspaper publishing and printing industries boom (Libya is a perfect example -8 new newspapers started up within a week of Gaddafi’s demise). Look to any other country on most major continents where there is political or civil strife and the media type that is under -newspapers, not the internet. Why? Because newspapers are tangible, visible, mostly not politically correct, have a physical presence (unlike the internet). Governments of some countries are major shareholders in internet providers and thus have the power to manipulate the internet media services. Not so when it comes to newspapers. I can go on and on about the real drives behind newspapers existences. But the most significant issue that will bring newspapers globally to their knees is the demise of the paper manufacturing industry which is under huge pressure to become environmentally aligned. Some of the biggest global paper manufacturing companies are already shutting down some paper manufacturing, specifically newspaper.

    As an example of what I have described herein see the following: “After a long campaign of threats and other harassment, the Ukrainian government appears to have interfered in the judicial process to secure a court ruling that jeopardises Express’s future. A court ruled against the newspaper in a case concerning the ownership of the company, ignoring a superior court judgment and legal precedent. Within hours of the judgment, officials offered to have the ruling overturned if Express would stop criticising the government in the run-up to elections later this year.
    The court decision is the latest in a long line of intimidatory acts against Express. In the past two years, Express journalists and managers have been attacked, arrested and had their equipment smashed. There has also been a suspected arson attack on Editor-in-Chief Igor Pochynok’s home, tampering with his car’s tyres, a smear campaign against him, and repeated threats of criminal prosecution. The windows of Express’s office have also been shot out.
    The court ruling led the Lviv-based Express – one of the country’s highest circulation papers and the leading newspaper in Western Ukraine – to publish a blanked out front page and launch a campaign calling on the public to protest the decision to President Viktor Yanukovych and senior court officials. The World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers, which represents 18,000 publications and over 3,000 companies in more than 120 countries, has sent a letter protesting the intimidation to the President. They have called on the government “to guarantee that court decisions are totally free from government influence in Ukraine.”

    Newspapers will be around for a long long time because there are individuals out there who fight everyday to publish news in countries where governments are doing their utmost to shut them up. You won’t find that happening on the internet.