Clay Shirky on the death of newspapers

The world of information has been stood up on its head.  Today, even newspaper publishers know this.  If gold became overabundant or electricity free, we would expect something revolutionary to happen to the wealth and productive power of our species.  Information subsumes and thus exceeds precious metals and energy production in importance, that is, in the potential for catastrophic change:  and something revolutionary is happening to information.

Ten years ago, information was scarce and therefore valuable.  Those who owned it, like the Sulzbergers of the NYT, were princes of the public sphere, selling a scarce commodity at top prices while being wooed by advertisers and politicians alike.

That has changed.  Information is now overabundant, and worth practically nothing.  Everyone can burst into the public sphere:  even a humble blogger like yours truly.  Advertisers have moved to Craigslist, which is free and enjoys a readership far beyond the dreams of any newspaper.  Politicians have also begun to edge away from newspapers.  They sense the link with the consumer has been broken, and desperately seek a new path to the voting public.  But where is it?  Nobody knows.

I would place Clay Shirky alongside the most astute observers of this revolutionary moment.  His most recent essay, “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” examines the parallels between the transformation caused by the printing press and that caused by the Web.  It’s worth quoting at length:

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. [. . . ]

During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points. Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer and publisher, invented the smaller octavo volume along with italic type. What seemed like a minor change — take a book and shrink it — was in retrospect a key innovation in the democratization of the printed word. As books became cheaper, more portable, and therefore more desirable, they expanded the market for all publishers, heightening the value of literacy still further.

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.

And so it is today. 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.    [. . . ]

For a long time, longer than anyone in the newspaper business has been alive in fact, print journalism has been intertwined with these economics. The expense of printing created an environment where Wal-Mart was willing to subsidize the Baghdad bureau. This wasn’t because of any deep link between advertising and reporting, nor was it about any real desire on the part of Wal-Mart to have their marketing budget go to international correspondents. It was just an accident.    [. . . ]

The competition-deflecting effects of printing cost got destroyed by the internet, where everyone pays for the infrastructure, and then everyone gets to use it. And when Wal-Mart, and the local Maytag dealer, and the law firm hiring a secretary, and that kid down the block selling his bike, were all able to use that infrastructure to get out of their old relationship with the publisher, they did. They’d never really signed up to fund the Baghdad bureau anyway.

What will replace the newspaper?  “We just got here,” Shirky writes.  “Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.”

All of the above I find to be an exceptionally brilliant description of reality.  The brilliance is required because, unsurprisingly, the old articulate classes see their overthrow in moral rather than business terms:  as the coming of chaos and dark night rather than a  transformation in the value of a commodity.  The demand for an online replication of the old order is foolish.  Prophetic assertions on behalf of this or that future state are either a form of advocacy, intellectual thickness, or deceit.

What of the threat of chaos?  The argument goes back to Walter Lippmann:  citizenship in a liberal democracy requires an enormous amount of knowledge by the ordinary citizen.  (Lippmann believed the news could not provide such knowledge, and that ordinary citizens weren’t interested anyway.  He placed his hopes on technocrats on the Platonic guardian model — much like the people who have commanded the US economy to assume exotic yoga positions.)

Shirky doesn’t disagree.  He makes a distinction between newspapers and journalism, and appears to believe that, while the former are expendable, the latter is necessary to democratic life.

Journalism has always been subsidized. Sometimes it’s been Wal-Mart and the kid with the bike. Sometimes it’s been Richard Mellon Scaife. Increasingly, it’s you and me, donating our time. The list of models that are obviously working today, like Consumer Reports and NPR, like ProPublica and WikiLeaks, can’t be expanded to cover any general case, but then nothing is going to cover the general case.

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.

Saving society — a curious phrase, but one Lippmann would have understood and approved.  I don’t know whether Shirky subscribes to Lippmann’s technocratic Platonism, and I don’t quite know what he means by “journalism.”  Information is information.  It’s either useful or not.  Journalism is information produced by journalists — if the latter go away, for strictly business reasons, because their historical “accident” is done, the former should disappear as well.

If democracy can survive the very last journalist becoming a software designer or a circus clown or whatever, it should, I imagine, survive the death of journalism.

The question is too important to dismiss, but I would phrase it differently.  What is the relation between information and freedom?  How deep must the knowledge of the average citizen become, for democracy to function properly?

I hope to post on these matters in the near future.

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