Are newspapers going the way of the buggy whip?

17 Oct

We are living through a revolution, even if the news industry refuses to acknowledge it.  For those in the newspaper industry, the unthinkable has arrived.   This is Clay Shirky’s message in his blog, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.   He continues on the themes he raised in ‘Here comes everybody,” that shrinking transaction costs due to the exponential growth of the internet and mobile technology is dramatically reshaping certain industries.   He boldly states the newspaper industry, as we knew it in the 20th century is doomed.  Like a ship taking on water, it can continue to sail for some time, but the economic model is broken and cannot be fixed.  He points out the industry has made numerous attempts to right the ship, implementing new strategies such as imposing micropayments, where customers would be charged small payments for access to online news services.  However, even this strategy is failing as consumers are not inclined to pay for what they can find for free.

Shirky argues we are living through a period not unlike the revolution generated by Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type that required a century for Europe to outgrow the chaos that arose when the ability to print being widely available.   During upheaval, “The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place” Shirky says.  Experimentation and innovation made printing even less expensive as the revolution progressed expanding on the availability and diversity of literature and books of all sorts, having a profound impact on society as “the value of literacy” increased.

Furthermore, he claims we are living through such an age again only we don’t yet have a clear idea of what the landscape will look like when the dust settles.  We know we benefit from the rigors of professional journalism to hold power accountable.   Yet we also know we benefit from blogging, crowdsourcing, and the ability for anyone with a smart phone and a data plan to contribute to the news and to shape events real time.   Shirky claims it will require iterative experimentation to arrive at the model that preserves the best of what professional journalism offers, to be delivered in tandem with the new technological and societal realities, (anybody can be a news source).

Are newspapers really going the way of the buggy whip?  Not so fast, literally.  Dean Starkman’s blog Confidence Game, The limited vision of the news gurus, objects to many of Shirky’s conclusions.    Interestingly, he does not refute Shirky’s major premise that transactions costs of distributing news has altered the landscape, but derides him for treating news as merely a commodity “of little value”.  He is personally offended that Shirky and those like him, (he labels FONs, Future of News) predicting the end of news organizations as they exist today don’t really appreciate the criticality of long piece journalism that democracies depend on to expose corruption and to hold those with power accountable.  He is offended that they aren’t just predicting newspapers downfall but they are “rooting for it, which then morphs into hastening it along

Starkman concludes that newspapers in the current form will ‘limp along’ because the public needs them.  What news organizations do and what they represent, at their journalistic best, cannot be replaced.   Starkman correctly points out all the benefits of great journalism, and that a functioning democracy requires a robust skeptical press.  Yet he doesn’t address what new economic model will support their long expose endeavors, which he acknowledges is expensive and time consuming.   He derides the FON’s as non-academic, but making the case that journalism will survive ‘only because it must’ doesn’t’ cut it either.  He resents the FON’s not because they are wrong but because he doesn’t believe they share the same ‘journalistic’ values as he.

My take on the argument is that In the long run Shirky’s case is compelling, the ship will eventually sink.  But when?  Look at these circulation numbers from the Newspaper Association of America  in 2008 there were 1408 daily newspapers in the U.S., in 2011 there were 1382.   A decline to be sure but my bet is that most of the big papers in business today will remain in print, less influential and less profitable to be sure, until a new model emerges.   I agree with Starkman that newsprint will limp along, but not because ‘it must’ but because the demographics supporting the industry will take time to change.   Print news, particularly the big news ‘institutions’ will hang on until further technological innovations and emerging demographics (with improved revenue streams) provide the impetus for a new model to emerge.

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