[16 March 2009]
Clay Shirky’s essay about the decline of newspapers is excellent on how they have ended up in their predicament.
Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception. In ordinary times, people who do no more than describe the world around them are seen as pragmatists, while those who imagine fabulous alternative futures are viewed as radicals. The last couple of decades haven’t been ordinary, however. Inside the papers, the pragmatists were the ones simply looking out the window and noticing that the real world was increasingly resembling the unthinkable scenario. These people were treated as if they were barking mad. Meanwhile the people spinning visions of popular walled gardens and enthusiastic micropayment adoption, visions unsupported by reality, were regarded not as charlatans but saviors.
When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times. One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.
What those working at newspapers couldn’t face was that the problem that publishing as an industry had developed itself to solve—how to overcome the expense of printing and distributing bundles of information—was no longer a problem at all thanks to the internet. A new industry to solve a new problem—how to pay for news gathering—must emerge.
But Shirky refuses to attempt to predict what that will be. He adopts a kind of anti-teleological stance, declaring that no one can know which experiments in news dissemination will take hold until after the fact. This is a wise and careful stance, but it ends up being tantamount to urging a kind of analytical passivity: We should just wait and see what shakes out, and then we will know what the right answer was to the problem of how journalists will be paid.
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 journalism we need.
What “we need” is whatever we end up getting. So in a sense, we can’t possibly go wrong. All truly is best in this best of all possible worlds.