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The Unthinkable

The Unthinkable

August 27th, 2009  |  Published in Core theory  |  2 Comments

John Plunkett of the UK Guardian  writes here about a subject near and dear to the hearts of newspapers these days.

The Financial Times editor, Lionel Barber, has predicted that “almost all” news organisations will be charging for online content within a year.

Its a pretty savvy article recognizing that financial papers like the Financial Times or the Wall Street Journal or Australia’s Financial Review have an advantage over general newspapers, and that mediocre papers are in the most danger of failing. Barber believes that general  papers offering unique content like the Guardian or the NY Times  have the best chance of survival. I’m tempted to agree – it seems a reasonable argument – but I think the problem is larger than adapting the old business model to the new media environment. Barber continues: “Many news organisations are following suit in charging, latterly the New York Times which had previously come down in favour of free access to its own content.” Indeed the Times is currently considering a  subscription fee, but for the second time. Mr. Barber rather too delicately alludes to Times Select, the subscription model the paper tried from  2005 to 2007. They discovered that the effect was to remove themselves from the Internet conversation and decided they needed to offer free subscriptions to academics and other opinion makers shortly before giving up the idea altogether.  Clay Shirky, the NYU media academic, in this trenchant analysis of the dilemma newspapers face argues that the problem is more fundamental than can be addressed with a change of business model and that the solutions proposed currently are the same as those put forward since the 90s.

The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!” The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes (save the unthinkable one) was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift. As a result, the conversation has degenerated into the enthusiastic grasping at straws, pursued by skeptical responses.

The unthinkable, not so obviously,  is that the institution of the newspaper itself  is finished not simply because it is based on an expensive and obsolete technology but because new technologies have swept away the very structures that make newspapers viable in the first place.  For example, Shirky points out that the old model enabled  newspapers to use advertising revenues from companies with no interest in subsidizing journalistic activity to fund expensive  projects like their ‘Baghdad bureau’. His entire argument is rich and compelling and should be read in its entirety but his remorseless  conclusion is worth repeating here:

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know “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 goes on to argue that while we no longer need newspapers,  we do need journalism. He also expresses the idea that we don’t know how it will work out and that, based on historical experience of previous technological revolutions,  we are in for a period of chaos before the new forms emerge. It is in this area of uncertainty that I believe many contemporary press people – both journalists and business people – like Lionel Barber have difficulty seeing that the implications of the technological revolution  effect both the business side and craft or practice side of journalism. Here is Plunkett again quoting Barber:

Barber made a distinction between “crafted” journalism and blogs “largely based on opinion rather than established fact [and] becoming increasingly influential in setting the news agenda”. “Bloggers have broken important stories and will continue to do so,” he said.

But he said they “do not operate according to the same standards as those who aspire to and practise crafted journalism. They are often happy to report rumour as fact, arguing that readers or fellow networkers can step in to correct those “facts” if they turn out to be wrong. They are rarely engaged in the pursuit of original news: their bread and butter is opinion and comment.”

“I do not wish to sound precious. British journalism has always put a premium on the scoop and it has long blurred the distinction between news and comment,” said Barber.

While the newspaper business side had been obviously sinking,  journalists have argued that their professional qualifications and standards set them apart and will allow them to maintain the status quo.  They fail to appreciate that their training and assumptions suit them – to paraphrase Shirky -  for dominance in structures optimized for mass media. The structure of mass media is characterized by a few communicating with many and describes radio and TV as well as newspapers. The Internet involves many to many communication – which is a different structure with different dynamics. What is already obvious is that both established journalists and outsiders can gain prominence in the new media environment.  Newspapers have been  impacted  first financially because they carry the extra economic burden  of paper, ink and physical delivery costs. The many to many structure of the Internet breaks both  critical monopolies historically enjoyed by mass media in general and newspapers in particular:

  1. Business: control of the means of publication – presses, TV and radio stations
  2. Craft: control of content – what stories will be told – the narrative

There is a tendency for those in the established journalism industry to confuse the two and to assume that even if the former breaks the latter will persist. On the business side the ability to avoid going broke is the determinant of survival. Right now it is clear that many newspapers have insurmountable business problems. Radio and TV, much less.  On the reporting or craft side the case is not so clear cut. What we have now is a much freer market where access is difficult or impossible to control.  Some independent journalists actually raise the standard of reporting – bloggers regularly catch the MSM misreporting, distorting and leaving things out as well as catching each other out. That is just the way it is  in the many to many environment. Others manage to gain a following that will pay to keep them reporting from distant places. Michael Yon and Michael J Totten come to mind. Personally, in following the Iraq war in 2003 I found the MSM superficial – tending to report causalities and tactical level incidents like the destruction of vehicles in a disconnected fashion.  Iraqi bloggers, active duty soldiers and ex servicemen turned reporters gave both better information and better insight. Significantly, I found one MSM reporter early on – John Burns of the NY Times Baghdad Bureau – who consistently dug beneath the surface in Iraq and produced superior reporting. However, when he disappeared behind the Times Select firewall in 2005 I had so many other excellent sources of information from Iraq that his reporting was no longer indispensable. In the short term I think some of the most ‘indispensable’ newspapers will survive in some form for a time but eventually ‘new structures optimized for digital data’ will emerge. One emergent category is  group blogs defined by ideological stance – much like newspapers or broadcasting groups. For example, Pajamas Media on the right and Huffington Post on the left. While I find individual posts on these sites worthwhile I feel uncomfortable knowing that I am reading inside an ideological walled garden for the same reasons I am uncomfortable with similar ideologically controlled environments in the mass media. So far I find I am most comfortable when ideology takes a back seat to transparency – but that is  a subject for another post. At this stage I don’t feel confident predicting that newspapers will disappear quickly unless the economic situation remains bad and accelerates their demise. We might  see the general city papers that take their lead from papers like the NY Times and Washington Post in national and international news retreat to smaller local papers. The Washington Post has shown the way in this area by having a strong local tradition.

Another trend that is emerging is hyperlocal blogging which is intensive old style reporting about a single area of a city or other small locality. According to Jeff Jarvis (of Buzz Machine in this post) and in a recent episode of Leo Laporte’s new podcast This Week in Google  such bloggers are able to earn from $200,000 to $300,000 a year – enough so that a talented blogger can share the income with another local individual who is good at selling the advertising that is the source of the income. To me hyperlocal blogging is a perfect example of  what Clay Shirky means when he talks about “new structures optimized for digital data.”


  1. SteveSadlov says:

    October 15th, 2009at 3:34 am(#)

    What Linux and other “open source” software structures were to software, this new many-to-many “open source” journalism is to the world of journalism. Traditional legacy media journalists are like the old closed system proprietary software makers. They will either learn to be open source participants, or they will cease to be relevant.

  2. admin says:

    October 20th, 2009at 3:22 am(#)

    Yes, I think that is exactly what is happening. It just isn’t clear exactly how it will play out – and who the new winners will be. I was amused this weekend to visit Barnes and Noble (I’m usually tucked away safely in Australia, but am in the US just now) and came away with the impression that nearly every book in the place was somehow connected to the NY Times Best Seller List. Evidently it is the new Imprimatur. It brought home to me just how centralized the industrial aged media are, and how vulnerable they are.

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