Clay Shirky on the End of Newspapers

Like it or not, newspapers are going away. Printing day-old news on dead trees and then shipping the results to subscribers by gas-burning trucks seems antiquated and inefficient, a process that has become obsolete in our lifetimes.

I love newspapers. One of things I like about living in DC is the heft of the Washington Post. Weight seems to connotate authority, a “real” newspaper for a real city, so different from the flimsy papers of smaller towns. However, that distinction is changing as the Post eliminates sections and physically shrinks while raising the newsstand price.

My loyalty has been tested. Why pay 75 cents for yesterday’s news when I can read the latest updates on my computer or iPhone for free? In this recession, millions of people are probably having similar conversations in their heads, and quietly dropping their subscriptions.

Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, makes this great point (among many others) in an excellent article on the state of newspapers. He observes that we’re living through a revolution just as momentous as the invention of the printing press, a piece of technology that destroyed the Catholic church and ushered in both religious wars and the Reformation.

Newspapers have been unable to come to grips with this reality.  Shirky writes:

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.

The sudden collapse of printed media is surprising to me. They once fashioned themselves as a fourth branch of government. Now they find themselves overshadowed by blogs and Craigslist.

Many of those of us who work on web sites have a certain animus toward print media, fueled by familiarity and contempt. We’ve collaborated with newspapers and magazines, struggled with their antiquarian publishing systems, been subject to their high-mindedness. They didn’t want to share their content, didn’t want to contribute to the web site, looked down on web users and their desire for interactivity. Publishing was a right accorded only to the special few, not the democratic masses.

With mixed feelings, I see that world being swept away. Back in 90s, we embraced revolutionary screeds like the Cluetrain Manifesto but I never imagined the entrenched institutions of print media would be threatened with extinction. Like with the early years of the printing press, none of us knows where this is going. However, Shirky makes a final, hopeful point. That while newspapers are disappearing, journalism doesn’t have to. We’re carried into this unknown future, like it or not.

Author: Joe Flood

Joe Flood is the author of The Swamp, a funny new novel that mocks the city America has come to hate.

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