Clay Shirky's "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable"

Sometimes Clay Shirky astounds us by articulating something we’ve never thought of, and sometimes he astounds us by telling us something many have thought, but never so clearly and so compellingly. But always, he astounds.

Into the first category falls the claim that he made in his keynote at the last Web 2.0 Expo that “the critical technology of the 20th century…was the sitcom.” Who would have thought that so penetrating an analysis could hinge on such a preposterous assertion! (If you haven’t already done so, read the transcript or watch the video.)

Yesterday’s piece, Newspapers and thinking the unthinkable, falls into the second category. When I said the other day that “Twitter is the most minimal newspaper,” or when I talked to the New York Times about rediscovering what is essential in what they do, I was speaking to this same topic, but like so many others, I was still framing the dialogue around “saving the newspaper.” By contrast, Clay cuts the Gordian knot:

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place….

And so it is today. When someone demands to be told how we can 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.

This is a piece that anyone concerned with the future of publishing simply MUST read.

That being said, when I speak to this topic myself, I offer this hope: that while institutions may be overwhelmed by the tide of change, new institutions do arise. The deep needs that newspapers serve aren’t going away. We will find new ways to serve those needs. As Clay says:

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.

And to be quite frank, we can already see the shape of that reinvention in specialized fields. In the mid-1990s, Michael Leeds, the CEO of CMP, in its day one of the titans of specialty computer newspapers, told me that if he couldn’t get one of his papers to $50 million in revenue in 3 years, he would shut it down as not worth doing. Today, many of the papers he owned are gone, yet small firms like Techcrunch, Mashable, and ReadWriteWeb are successful (and doing at least as good a job of covering computer industry news) at an order of magnitude less revenue than CMP would once have thrown away.

Jobs that matter get done. But no one is guaranteed that their business as they conceive of it today will be preserved, especially at any given scale or profitability. So, have faith. The world as we know it is being broken. Now, let’s get on with reinventing it!

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