Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Future of the Newspaper Industry

There has been a lot of speculation about the future of the newspaper industry, and of all mainstream media industries in general. The reason for this is that the electronic media are coming of age and being used by more and more people.

In class, I handed out hard copies of Clay Shirky's article "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable." The original version is here.

After I read his article, the quote that he uses towards the beginning really stayed with me...

When a 14 year old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem.
In fact, I completely forgot where the quote originally came from, and found the article again by searching on key words from the quote.

Another important idea from this article is that of ignoring reality. The science fiction writer Phillip K. Dick once said that Reality is what doesn't go away if you stop believing in it.

Shirky writes clearly that newspapers did see these issues coming, but failed to engage with them in a realistic way.

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 increasingly resembled 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.
The newspaper industry is not the only industry struggling to manage change in our culture. Clearly, the American auto industry and the financial industry are both struggling with change that is driven by the emergence of new technology and the decline of older forms of technology.

The financial industry has lost many individual clients with the rise of cheap on-line trading and financial quantitative software packages.

The rise in oil prices started roiling the Detroit automakers in the mid-1970's and despite all the profits they made making and selling SUV's and pick-ups over the last 15-20 years they still haven't prepared for the apparently unavoidable rise in oil prices.

What I think Clay Shirky and others are doing is taking that look at reality that many of the media executives have refused to and struggling to figure out "Where do we go from here?"

Elizabeth Eisenstein’s magisterial treatment of Gutenberg’s invention, The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, opens with a recounting of her research into the early history of the printing press. She was able to find many descriptions of life in the early 1400s, the era before movable type. Literacy was limited, the Catholic Church was the pan-European political force, Mass was in Latin, and the average book was the Bible. She was also able to find endless descriptions of life in the late 1500s, after Gutenberg’s invention had started to spread. Literacy was on the rise, as were books written in contemporary languages, Copernicus had published his epochal work on astronomy, and Martin Luther’s use of the press to reform the Church was upending both religious and political stability.

What Eisenstein focused on, though, was how many historians ignored the transition from one era to the other. To describe the world before or after the spread of print was child’s play; those dates were safely distanced from upheaval. But what was happening in 1500? The hard question Eisenstein’s book asks is “How did we get from the world before the printing press to the world after it? What was the revolution itself like?”

Chaotic, as it turns out. The Bible was translated into local languages; was this an educational boon or the work of the devil? Erotic novels appeared, prompting the same set of questions. Copies of Aristotle and Galen circulated widely, but direct encounter with the relevant texts revealed that the two sources clashed, tarnishing faith in the Ancients. As novelty spread, old institutions seemed exhausted while new ones seemed untrustworthy; as a result, people almost literally didn’t know what to think. If you can’t trust Aristotle, who can you trust?....

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.

There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie.

One of the great things about on-line media is that a piece of writing like "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable" doesn't just exist on its own. For one thing, there are over 1,200 comments appended to this article, the latest of which was posted a month ago although the original article was written and posted in March of 2009.

Another thing is that many other writers who agree with Shirky have posted their thoughts on their own blogs.

Dan Conover is a former newspaper writer and editor who now works in many forms of media.

If you're interested in his insider opinions about the newspaper industry, he has several posts about these ideas...

10 Reasons Why the Newspapers Won't Reinvent the News

Why he thinks that on-line paid newspapers won't work

Another post about the demise of the newspaper industry as we know it

One of the things I really like about Conover's writing is his extensive and effective use of hyperlinks. When I first started reading about these issues, I spent nearly an hour reading first one article then another that was linked in the middle of the first and then another that was linked from the link.

When I finally picked my head up after nearly an hour, I thought, no wonder the newspaper industry is in trouble...they can't provide this!

Here's another former newspaper writer's thoughts about these same issues. Something that Steve Buttry points out in this last link is that if newspapers charge for access, they won't be able to charge as much for advertising.

One of the reasons I think that this class is important is that this is happening right now.

Here's a story that broke in the last few days about the New York Times' decision to charge for their content. They've tried this twice before and it hasn't worked. Maybe this time it will.

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