Clay Shirky: Save Society, Not Newspapers

March 15, 2009
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There is so much writing about the impeding demise of the newspaper industry that’s it’s becoming easy to tune it out. But it’s refreshing to see a cutting analysis like the one Clay Shirky makes in “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable“.
He starts with an anecdote about how, in the early 90s, the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain […]

There is so much writing about the impeding demise of the newspaper industry that’s it’s becoming easy to tune it out. But it’s refreshing to see a cutting analysis like the one Clay Shirky makes in “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable“.

He starts with an anecdote about how, in the early 90s, the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain was fighting the unauthorized online distribution of a Dave Barry column. He quotes Gordy Thompson, who then managed internet services at the New York Times: “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.” His most cutting remark:

The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; “You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!” has never been much of a business model.

His main point is this: “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.” And he simply doesn’t see newspapers surviving as the way to deliver journalism.

I’m not so sure, but I think Shirky has his priorities right. We should be worrying about the end, not the means. I don’t subscribe to his and Jeff Jarvis’s faith-based optimism; I’m not convinced that the market demands it enough. Witness the challenge of sustaining other public goods, such as education and energy conservation. My own view is that journalism’s best hope is monetizing participation. I’m actually in the middle of writing an article about it; I’ll let you know if and when it gets published.

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