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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  • I couldn’t quite justify working this into the piece itself, but thought I’d share in the comments some lines from the poem Esthetique du Mal, by my favorite poet, Wallace Stevens:

    …How cold the vacancy

    When the phantoms are gone and the shaken realist

    First sees reality….

    The tragedy, however, may have begun,

    Again, in the imagination’s new beginning,

    In the yes of the realist spoken because he must

    Say yes, spoken because under every no

    Lay a passion for yes that had never been broken.

  • “Today, many of the papers he owned are gone, yet small firms like Techcrunch, Mashable, and ReadWriteWeb are successful …”

    As the British would say: Quite.

    Anyway, he’s mischaracterizing some skepticism, which he won’t be called-on because of having a huge broadcast megaphone from A-list blogs (how old media :-().

    “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.”

    No. They want to know if the revolution outcome is going to be WORSE. Which he assiduously avoids considering, since then all those hypesters and hucksters promoting him, wouldn’t like it so much. Which is a lesson itself.

  • Have you re-thought your own industry Tim? Or rather, I would love to hear your thoughts, now that you have read Shirkey’s astounding essay, on where book publishing is going. I am sure you will agree that “Kindle” is not the final answer.

  • Greg Andrew

    Tim – if you really think that “jobs that matter get done,” you are either misreading or disagreeing with what Clay wrote. One of his points is just the opposite – that we may lose important coverage, but there’s no point in complaining about that, because there’s no stopping the train that is destroying the business model underlying much media; all we can and should do do is forge the future by seeing what works. There’s no guarantee that anything specific will work or that a way will be found to preserve the jobs that matter. Clay ends his essay with a positive note that new experiments “might give us the reporting we need,” but doesn’t deny that those experiments might not do that. There may be reason for some hope, but there’s no reason to just “have faith” and assume that we’re going to come out fine at the other end of the tunnel. It’s pointless to gnash our teeth, but it’s equally pointless to assume that everything will turn out all right in the end.

  • rick

    Hmm… Perhaps it’s just me, but I thought his central point was obvious, at least to those outside of publishing. No, it’s not newspapers that need saving it’s reporting (in the broad, not the ‘professional reporting’ meaning).

    I KNOW we’re in a revolution… we have been my entire life (I’m 50). The concern for me isn’t how we save papers… we’re not going to. The concern is twofold:

    1) What do existing media do that’s important to society and how is that addressed as we make the transition?

    2) Not all revolutions give us something better. How can we influence the direction of this one so that it does do that?

    My concern about the demise of newspapers is heightened by the fact that one of my two local papers will cease publishing in the next week or so and the other is financially shaky enough that it may well expire by the end of 2009 leaving Seattle a no newspaper town. How will we then cover city and regional issues? Those seem to fall into a gap thats currently uncovered – neighborhood blogs do well at their beat, national news media covers that set of issues and topical things like sports are well covered by ESPN etc… but how will we report on mass transit, the mayoral election, tri-county issues that reach outside of Seattle but are too regional for national coverage?

    I don’t demand to know the answer… but by thinking about where the gaps are perhaps we can start building it.

  • Richard (Stiennon) –

    I’m completely with Clay on this one. It definitely applies to book publishing as well as newspapers. Clay’s point about the pace of change is central:

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

    I’m always telling the Safari folks, for instance, that they are in a race: that Safari has to get big enough fast enough to keep publishers in the game as print publishing declines.

    We’ve made great progress, but not enough to keep us publishing all the kinds of books that we used to. Some types of things that are valuable to Safari are not being produced because by itself it’s not a big enough channel to justify their creation.

    Standalone eBooks are also starting to move the needle a bit (though at nothing like the scale of Safari for us.) But I’m guessing that print publishing as it now exists will “lose the race,” and many big publishers will go out of business.

    But that’s OK. It’s all a process of adaptation.

    I remind myself and my employees that when we were small, we lived off products that bigger companies thought were too small to pay any attention to. Over time, that focus on small things made us big and successful, as the market adapted and we grew with it.

    In short, I expect some wrenching times, but there will be new products, new revenue streams, and the companies that are able to adapt (in part by shrinking, in part by introducing new kinds of products that serve the same needs) will eventually grow large and healthy again. But in the meantime, you have to grow lean, so you can live on much smaller revenues from the new emerging markets.

    This is why startups so often turn out to be the winners in market transitions. They don’t have legacy cost structures and expectations. (Jeff Bezos once said “Rapid transitions favor startups, and slow transitions favor the incumbents.” ( He’s totally right.

    That’s why I contrasted CMP and Techcrunch et al. I wouldn’t be surprised to see small web pubs rolled up into a substantial “tech news” publishing company, just as IDG and CMP built substantial opt-in paper empires.

    Similarly, there will be people producing content with new business models – ad supported, crowdsourced, but sometimes still carefully curated and packaged – who will grow up to be the big guys of the future.

    The need to find, manage, and promote good content won’t go away. Every new medium – no matter how long tail – eventually develops a head as well. And that head has the power to bestow status on those further down the slope. And thus, the ability to profit from their position.

    That’s why I called twitter the most minimal newspaper (or the most minimal publisher) and have argued that when I retweet someone on twitter, I’m carrying out the same act of publishing that I do when I publish a book, or ask someone to speak at a conference. I’m building my own platform by my ability to pick out and promote interesting people.

    Will this add up fast enough to replace declining book revenue and profit? Who knows. But as the old Hawaiian saying goes, “No one promised us tomorrow.”

  • Greg –

    I’m “slightly” disagreeing with Clay. If you read him closely, he is in fact saying that the future feels worse to the incumbents than it may turn out for society as a whole. And yes, there are many significant downsides that may not fill every gap.

    My point is that people are already filling the gaps. Heck, Craigslist, one of the many things that is killing newspapers, has done so precisely by filling a gap that newspapers once filled.

    Personally, I think the role of newspapers in, say, international reporting, is woefully overstated. The stories they cover are so selective, with so much of the world simply ignored. An outfit like Global Voices is *already* doing a better job on many international stories than any print newspaper in existence. The Sunlight Foundation and their ilk are doing a better job on DC transparency than the Washington Post. And as Jon Stewart reminded us the other night, Comedy Central is doing a better job asking hard questions than TV news shows.

    In my own business, I recognize that many people are putting up great content on web pages, doing a better job on some topics than w to do with books (with better being some combination of speed and low price, not necessarily depth or quality.) And as a result we sell fewer books on those topics. Is the world less informed about breaking technology than in our heyday, when an O’Reilly book was the most important way to get the word out about a new technology? I don’t think so.

    Overall, I think Clay and I agree on the main thing: saving newspapers isn’t the important point. Figuring out how to do what’s important about what they do is what matters.

  • Falafulu Fisi

    Tim said…
    That’s why I called twitter the most minimal newspaper

    Tim, I don’t know whats exciting or fascinating in Twitter or Facebook? I have never used twitter or FB but to me, twitter is a time-wasting service for its users, but that’s Ok because at the end of the day it is their choice. There is nothing useful to know in an already information overload internet age then being stuffing up ones brain with social networking gossips. What’s the use? I can’t see any. Do I need to know what Britney Spears is upto? Nope. Do I need to know what Robert Scoble is upto? Nope. I am interested to come here regularly and read the articles here at O’Reilly Radar, which they give value to me (knowledgewise in terms of things that are new to me). Compared to twitter or other social network, they give zero knowledge or something useful at all except wasting my time.

    I email or ring my friends/family members once in a while and that’s enough. Knowing too much of what they do daily, is too much for me.

    I would still follow breaking news on CNN, Fox, BBC, etc,… rather than twitter. I value depth of coverage (from traditional media) more than first to know (social network). Depth of coverage gives one a wholistic view of the issue, while the first to know gives one a fragmented view of the issue, ie, you cannot connect the dots. I have a friend who is addicted to facebook and twitter and I can see what fragmented knowledge in her. At social drinks, she manages to know about interesting topics of what just happened recently. Once the group’s conversation started digging deep into specific topic of discussion, ie the caused and the future implications of what have just occurred, she usually became quiet. We (her other friends) know the reason, that she doesn’t read much or have some enthusiasm at all to dig deeper to anything or a story she has come across except just knowing the headline and that’s it. She used to be knowledgeable before she joined Facebook & Twitter, because she was a magazine addict, she used to buy lots of them (different types) to read, but now she spent hours a day on Facebook and twitter. The people she networks with at Facebook are those that she sees everyday (her work colleagues), she has her family members too, but she sees them twice a week. I told her that she is wasting too much time on social networkings which gives her zero values, except wasting her productive time. But her reason is, that she feels important being on a social networking sites.

  • Tim,

    I wonder what you think about applying Amazon’s Marketplace strategy (Amazon provides the platform with all it’s benefits, many independent Sellers provide the merchandise) to the news industry (New York Times, CNN, or some other outlet with a highly developed webnews engine provides the platform, small and local news outlets provide the journalism and content).

    This would offer:

    1) users a richer, fuller, more streamlined and consistent experience across a set of news sites

    2) local papers the ability to concentrate on their core competency, news finding, and not have to deal much to developing web technologies

    3) the platform owners a portion of the revenue from eyeball real estate, or revenue from licensing the platform

    Aside from those basic advantages, I think that if a subscription or micropayments model have any chance of success for the news industry, it would be by having via a platform which creates a standard and desirable experience, and offers users a sufficiently broad range of content to justify their time and money (ie: would anyone buy music online if there were thousands of labels, each with their owns sites, with their own designs, settings different prices, and having limited selections?).

  • Steven Johnson at SXSW:

    The metaphors we use to think about changes in media have a lot to tell us about the particular moment we’re in. McLuhan talked about media as an extension of our central nervous system, and we spent forty years trying to figure out how media was re-wiring our brains. The metaphor you hear now is different, more E.O. Wilson than McLuhan: the ecosystem. …

    I think that steady transformation from desert to jungle may be the single most important trend we should be looking at when we talk about the future of news. Not the future of the news industry, or the print newspaper business: the future of news itself. …

    In fact, I think in the long run, we’re going to look back at many facets of old media and realize that we were living in a desert disguised as a rain forest.

  • 14 years ago, my partner, Wayne Morgenthaler, owner of Jungle Vibes in Petaluma, said he thought the Argus Courier, the newspaper then paying me a bit to write feature stories, would die. After 100 years in print! I said. Well, maybe…it’s now attempting to make bucks from MY free blogs among others…but glad to see O’Reilly Media is tackling this big question…not just media literacy where we discover how big guys manipulate our thoughts (sorry, always thought this was GUYS!) but how and where and when is thought created, anyhoo. For my part, I hope we go back to lots of stories told around campfires – and writing songs! Our local singer-songwriters do us a big favor by expressing our feelings as well as words…

  • Alex Tolley

    “Jobs that matter get done.”

    Which jobs and matters to whom? When Rome started to contract, what mattered to Rome was different to that of the Britons. A job that mattered to Romans living in Briton was defending Hadrian’s wall. What mattered to Rome was preserving its empire. The legions withdrew. The quality of life fell drastically for many in Briton.

    Russia had it’s political revolution in 1917. Will 2017 show Russia to be better off having gone through that upheaval?

    I think that “saving society” in Shirky’s sense implies that society as a whole was able to move on, even better itself after the revolution. That may just be a blinkered view of history. In other words, Shirky may be over-optimistic that society will be OK after a revolution.

  • Alex,

    Comparing the collapse of newspaper business models to the fall of Rome takes the analogy to its logical conclusion, to be sure, but I’m not sure that it actually helps get us to the right conclusion.

    It’s absolutely true that there are events that are so catastrophic that they represent major declines in the quality of life for everyone. Personally, I think we’re facing one of those with the end of cheap oil, climate change, etc.

    I don’t think the end of publishing as we know it today is one of those “oh shit” issues.

    What’s also amazing is that even in oh shit moments, things take longer to go to pot than we think, and are not necessarily worse for everyone involved. To take your example, it’s certainly not clear that life for the average Briton was worse after the withdrawal of Rome. Bad for one group may be good for another.

    And it’s certainly true that even after a “benign” revolution like the American Revolution, there was a huge amount of dislocation. History tends to blur the details, and often celebrates the winners while the losers are left in the shadows.

    That’s why we have to “try everything,” as Clay advises. And that’s why I’m out there urging people to work on stuff that matters. And as to “to whom?” I can only answer, to each of us. As we contend with our respective visions of a better future, we eventually find a consensus that takes us forward.

  • Um.

    So, things that matter:

    There are various newsrooms, bureaus, archives and their staffs whose future is imperiled. There are various presses, paper makers, printers and delivery staff also in trouble – and the substitutes for these things lose many attributes that are valuable on their face (a mass-scale, tangible-medium distribution channel is a social asset).

    The traditional models that supported those things are failing for a variety of complicated reasons.

    These matter.

    Things I’m not so sure matter:

    Sweeping historical (and hysterical) narratives spun as just-so stories. Why, the current crisis, viewed suitably abstractly without too much emphasis on the details of cause and effect is just a repeat of the invention of the printing press, oops, I mean rail travel, unless I mean the whole thing is *exactly* what happened with the invention of radio, er… no, it was the phone system. Yeah.

    How is it the same as those epoch-making events? Communication tech changes accompanied a lot of other big changes and there were big winners and losers in formerly stable markets and in new markets. The upheaval had significant political and social implications.

    Don’t believe today’s events mirror those earlier ones in important ways? Here’s an anecdote about Dave Barry and some lawyers: now what do you think? It’s a cool anecdote, right? It explains *everything*.

    What it implies for what we should do? “Try everything!” Throw stuff at the wall, see what sticks!

    Gee, thanks. Hadn’t thought of that. Everyone up and down the entire system of newspaper production was truly convinced they had to “remain inside the box” and what a forehead slapper to be reminded they ought to “think outside the box” instead. They have also long labored under the apparently false assumption that their resources were limited and they would have to pick and choose a limited number of options to “try”.

    Super stuff. :-)


  • Tom –

    I think you miss the point of Clay’s piece. It wasn’t to “think outside the box.” It was that “there is no outside the box.” The unthinkable (or at least inadmissable) was that newspapers might indeed not survive.

    It’s a good reminder to all of us that the future doesn’t necessarily include us in the way that we’d like.

    Many people have a great inability to imagine that possibility. (It’s a big part of the climate change problem IMO. People forget that we’re in a 150-year bubble of cheap energy that won’t last forever, and that the end will be wrenching.)

    But back to publishing: yes, it will be wrenching. No one says otherwise. That’s Clay’s whole point.

    But I still add the faith that we will all muddle through.

  • The Rome analogy was somewhat OTT. But as Tom Lord points out, there have been many major technological changes that have created winners and losers and overturned the “old order”. Change is about shifts in wealth and power, and current winners will not give up their position without a fight.

    At the more micro level in publishing, I think we can apply Christensen’s “innovator’s dilemma”. The major players in publishing have a lot to lose, while the “just good enough” digital solutions are undermining the business model. The response is often to try to go “up-market” and I suggest this is reflected in the publisher’s trying to emphasize the “quality” of reporting, or the editorial value-add.

    I honestly don’t know if we are losing something important in the newspaper industry. What the digital media have brought in their wake is something very important – the explosion of voices in specialist domains, blogs and blog-comment forums like this. I think I read far more diverse opinion in a host of domains that I did even 10 years ago.

    In your business, the assumption is that the author of a book is the “expert” and can best convey that information to the reader. I have to wonder if that model might be overturned by the successful OSS model – a leader to ensure that the content is cohesive, supported by a larger coterie of contributors providing content such as code examples, more detailed code examples in a more open, wiki-like structure. Such a model might work a lot better for rapidly changing technology and provide a more robust source of information. The new business model might just undermine the traditional technical book publishing industry. Imagine further that content price falls to zero, and like music, the business model has to shift to selling something else – the “experience”, the tee-shirts, etc. I think the strains are already evident.

  • Tim,

    So the gist is a reminder about Fire and Brimstone and an invocation of faith to create Hope of Redemption. The reminder is issued because there are too many Sinners who have not heard the Good News. And we can tag various alarming events to it (like the state of the newspaper industry or peak oil).

    Newspapers might die. Try new things. We’re all in this together. Can I get a shout out for peak oil!!!!???!??!??

    You and Clay are adopting an easily (and justifiably) lampooned rhetoric, there. You’re talking like charasmatic preachers thumping a pulpit while reciting a vague but highly dramatic theology. We can’t quite make out the specific credos we’re supposed to sign up for other than something important is being said.

    Here is how to deal with the newspaper crisis:

    Subscriptions and newstand sales are down and not combing back. Necessarily, presses and distribution systems must contract.

    Much follows from that.

    Survival advantage in presses and distribution will accordingly go to the ones who best become nimple at satisfying what demand remains. For example, here is one innovation, illustrating “nimble” that I think would be a win:

    Suppose I didn’t buy a paper copy of the paper today but I was looking at it on-line. OMG! What a day! So much big news! I want to spend some time perusing much of today’s paper.

    So, I click a button linking to my account and, tomorrow, today’s paper will be delivered to my door.

    A step further:

    It wasn’t only my local paper that was so cool: The Financial Times and WSJ covered the same news and I want all three. So, all three will be delivered, just that one day, and one day “late”.

    Also, the XKCD guy, Keith Knight, the Get Fuzzy guy, and a few others have started publishing a comics section. Another syndicate of Garry Trudeau, Playboy, the New York Times and a few others has as well. I like to keep those around in the toilet facilities of my apartment so the local printer should also drop of the latest of those each week. (I can change what mix of comics I get on-line, whenever I like).

    The remaining newspaper firms, accordingly, must adjust their long tradition of differentiation by format, in sync with the winning presses. The presses’ job is to maximize format flexibility for all papers. The papers’ job is to create an industry standard so that everyone’s paper is printable on the new, flexible, commodity press.

    Urban universities (well, Berkeley, especially) crudely approximate such an arrangement in miniature in the form of “copy shop” businesses that make “readers” for university profs.

    That much will (a) stimulate a lot of nifty but realistically achievable innovation in press tech and distribution tech; (b) get the physical-medium and distribution costs of a newspaper firm into a self-funding state.

    But… who pays for the journalism? and the archive? Well:

    I’ll spare the long-winded version. We can talk more about it if you like. The short version:

    ccRel / RDFa / XML and all that, plus, “CC+”.


  • Predictions are for s-, but, Tim, here is a prediction:

    You will one day sell (or give away, perhaps with ads) on-line access to your pubs with a user-remixable “push to have them mail me nicely made hard-copy” button.

    Ok, not much of a prediction – I vaguely recall you have small steps in that direction already – but I think it becomes your main thing, too. Neat.


  • n March 21, the undersigned will gather in Washington, DC to start creating the new revenue models everyone agrees are needed, but no one has yet delivered. We call this effort RevenueTwoPointZero.

    But unlike recent confabs of executives, editors and academics, we are hands-on professionals charged with delivering media solutions every day. And because we’re hands-on, we know how build to prototypes to demonstrate our ideas to the newspaper industry. We aim to do that by the end of the day on March 21st.

    We reject the belief that media companies should pursue models based on pay-for-content plans or philanthropy. Instead, we believe the best hope for media companies to make money is the old-fashioned way — by earning it.

  • @Alan Jacobson:

    1. Build an effective advertising model for news content delivered on smart phones, such as Apple’s iPhone.
    2. Create a better CraigsList.
    3. Show newspaper-centric companies how they can better meet the advertising needs of small- and medium-sized businesses.

    I think that you are still immersed in the world which believes “content” can best be delivered (and charged for) by some specialist content creating organization. Your 3 points are about recapturing the old business. In Shirky’s context, that is like the Catholic church admitting that the long, latin mass should be changed to a shorter, local language version that everyone can understand. Just please don’t let the people read the bible themselves.

    I may not be typical, but I stopped reading physical newspapers over 10 years ago. What I read from the traditional vendors is online. That is a small fraction of my “news” reading. I will pick up a used rag at Starbucks to look at if I don’t have a laptop and an online connection.
    Local papers delivered free on my driveway go straight into the recycle bin without reading, like junk mail. Maybe there is a need for local companies to advertise, but I note that increasingly the ad pages are just displayed at the store entrance. IMO, broadcasting product or service availability is dying. The real power is recommendations from others on services like Yelp and Angie’s List. Newspaper publishers cannot offer that service.

    I think revenue2.0 is just the reactionary response to change. You may be able to slow the change, but you won’t stop it.

  • Charles Monk

    Books and newspapers are fundamentally different, but their differences have been disguised by the same accident of technology which Clay refers to when describing the strange mixture of things combined into newspapers. Just because they’re both printed, it doesn’t follow that books and newspapers are significantly similar, or that their futures are related.

    The case of technical publishing (such as O’Reilly output) is interesting because it falls on the fault-line between the two worlds: its value is largely ephemeral in the long-term, but the material is current for months or years rather than hours or days.

    This value duration is significant because being able to delay publication for a short time while remaining current and valuable allows alternative financial models such as the fund-and-release system outlined in the Takoha manifesto ( This is fine for books, but doesn’t help with the problem of how to fund journalism.

    Doesn’t the BBC provide a possible model which could be replicated around the world? Other countries do maintain equivalent services. Collectively-funded ad-free news organisations with a constitutional commitment to impartiality provide much of the best journalism we get. Maybe we just need more of those to replace the shrivelling stable of commercially-funded newspapers.

  • Tim,

    Great comment on a great piece.

    “The world as we know it is being broken. Now, let’s get on with reinventing it!”

    Let’s indeed. I think one of the things to consider is that it isn’t just the newspaper ecosystem that is shutting down and in need of reinvention – it is any ecosystem that has opacity and objectivity as its core structure and value. This really may be part of a bigger unthinkable, the death of journalism – at least as we know it. I’m trying out this thought experiment and attempting to build on Shirky and Johnson with this post.

  • The unthinkable is occuring. Papers are dying. However, it is not the web that is killing the printed word, at least not directly. Papers are dying for the same reason that this article is exciting, because we are all sharing our stories. People have forgotten just how important it is for us to keep evolving. Sharing is perhaps the most rewarding way to find solution.

  • Using the Resilience Alliance model and metaphor of the adaptive cycle, we might say that Clay sees the system as entering a back loop, in which adaptation is no longer helpful and only transformation will suffice. Steven Johnson looks (as does Tim) beyond the back loop to describe examples of renewal in the fields of technology and political reporting.

    I explore this topic in an article on People and Place.

  • bowerbird

    tim said:
    > I’m always telling the Safari folks, for instance, that they
    > are in a race: that Safari has to get big enough fast enough
    > to keep publishers in the game as print publishing declines.

    why try to save publishers while the thing they do “declines”?

    oh, right, because you want them to attend your conferences.

    ok, then, carry on…


    p.s. now tim says “but publishers do more than print books”,
    and i say “oh yeah, what?”, and tim says “gate-keep, edit, etc.”,
    and i say “all of those things can be done without publishers”,
    and tim tries another stall tactic, and i call him on that, until
    everyone is bored with the back-and-forth. i’m bored already.
    i’m just waiting until the corporations drop their publishing units
    because they can no longer pull in sufficient profit. only _then_
    will the future be interesting enough to engage our creativity…

  • Agile Cyborg

    I don’t know why technology appears to be argued continually as some sort of ultimate/righteous/saving force by those intellectually inclined to reject fantasy and illusion for the more practical pragmatic and objective appraisal.

    Has internet technology saved us from much of anything on the grand scale?

    In the end will this beast create more problems than it exists to solve?

    I just personally find it incredibly arrogant for folks to callously justify the destruction of years and years of an established human endeavor, in this case, known as the civilization-shaping newspaper for the unproven whims and fashions of a fragile future that many bright people bedeck and festoon with a sure voodoo (if there is such a thing).

    The answers do not have to exist for this thing just like there doesn’t have to be eternal life for theists when they die.

    In my way of thinking there is something really, really wrong about major newspapers ceasing operation. So much so that frilly speeches about glory-hallelujah technology seem to be muted cries for help.

    I don’t want to rely on the often compliant and tepid social network to jerk local government up when it screws the populace. I am not comfortable relying on the mass fragmentation and the wildly diverging whims of a social network to present a concise rebuke to corruption in high places.

  • bowerbird

    agile cyborg-
    > I just personally find it incredibly arrogant for folks to
    > callously justify the destruction of years and years of
    > an established human endeavor, in this case, known as
    > the civilization-shaping newspaper

    um, that’s capitalism, baby.

    if you don’t turn a profit, you’re history. cut loose. gone.

    if you didn’t want those ground-rules, you shouldn’t
    have put newspapers in the hands of the corporations.

    > I am not comfortable relying on the mass fragmentation
    > and the wildly diverging whims of a social network
    > to present a concise rebuke to corruption in high places.

    great point. especially since the corporate media did
    such an outstanding job of preventing the malfeasance
    that created the financial crisis costing us $700 billion.

    we put the fox in charge of guarding the hen-house…


  • Agile Cyborg


    Profit is the new God, to be sure. But as your post points out even Profit God fails miserably.

    We are allowing a proven failure to become a determiner of social value.

    I don’t think corporate newspapers are infallible. I never presented that view. What I have presented is a concern about the failing free press in this country and the unforeseen ramifications for our culture in the long term.

    At some level we have to be responsible for what we want from the future rather than simply handing it over to the VC’s whose only motive in the process is pure greed.

    I have no answers because I am not affiliated with the newspaper industry. I just feel a certain level of strong discomfort over all of this and responded to this very relevant blog post in like manner.

  • Bolsheviks *love it* when “the old stuff gets broken faster than the new” because they can exploit the destruction to come to power themselves amid the chaos and get their hidden agenda into place.

    That’s what Shirky, Lessig, Noveck, Rosen, and other preachers of the “new” are ultimately up to (and Noveck already got her job in the USG’s Office of Technology).

    But we’re watching. We know that right behind the savage glee over the death of the newspaper — something Shirky et. al. helped come into being with their irresponsible copyleftism — are some very, very sinister collectist ideologies on their part that people don’t want even if they like “sharp analysis”. Like Shirky’s and Noveck’s views on groups shaping and controlling the individual online, defining his very identity. Like “wiki culture” that destroys the thought of one with the mediocrity not even of the many, but the unaccountable few.

    Twitter isn’t a newspaper. It’s a twitter. Birds on a wire do not make a civil society.Newspapers didn’t die yet. And preaching the ancient doctrines of Marx of 150 years ago in their new form (protectionist of Silicon Valley’s business and technologies, destructive of others by urging everyone to free their property) isn’t something that really can be characterized as “new” or “progressive”.

    It’s as old as the hills. What’s new is that the geeks will not remain long in power, either. Nor will the hyper-expensive universities paying for them to yap about this stuff.

    I simply don’t want Michael Arrington of Techcrunch, a tiny, biased, industry-specific source in the scheme of things, to become, under the guise of making and funding and commenting on the new tools, the arbiter of news *itself* and the critical journalism for ALL subjects.

    It will be awhile before the leftwing views welded into the social media tools are cracked open and the coders made to stop controlling them, but like all other “revolutions” that involve forcibly “evolving” other people while not evolving themselves, eventually, it will work out, and people will have parliamentary democracy and a mixed economy — and no thanks to those who tried avidly to destroy these institutions which represent the progress of humanity, not its regress into collectivism.

  • The lack of an historical perspective makes difficult to think about or understand the future. Is this really the end of the printed newspaper? Perhaps not.

    Read more here:

  • Good related article from Leonard Pitts, Jr.

    I’m working with a company called Dakode to bring an advertising solution to the US that might give an ad revenue boost to newspapers… QR Codes. We want to do some test runs with print publishers, so if anyone is interested, check out the site and contact me at

    QR Codes can link print ads to the internet, via camera phones. Nokia and Samsung phones come with a reader, free iPhone readers are available on the App Store…and many more are available on Dakode’s site. It’s a cool technology, huge in Asia and growing fast in Europe, but not so much here yet, and I want to help newspapers and other printed media survive.

  • Clay Shirky is plain wrong. His analysis misses the point about what newspapers were all about in the first place. For those interested I tackle the key points on my PR blog here:

  • Clay Shirky’s post is a very interesting one. Let me say something about that as viewed from an italian point of view. In my country newspapers are all funded by the government with the tax payers’ money. This saves the need for the availability of information by anyone, those that can connect to the Internet and those who can’t or simply don’t want. But this way we cannot say we are talking about viable business models. The problem is that politicians and bankers who owns the newspapers control the information. What is emerging is that we don’t need newspaper, we need journalism, as Clay says, and above all journalists. People specialized in one or more kind of information that are particularly important to the citizen and that publish those information via their blog posts or videos. Some of them sell DVD with their best videos, make shows in theatre and get paid when invited in TV shows. They are invited because of the trust of the people that follow them on the Internet. So I think that Web 2.0 is the octavo volume of our age and journalists not newspapers as we know them are the Aldus Manutius of our times.

  • In some senses, Twitter is very much like a minimal newspaper – most of it is skim read, for most people most of it is irrelevant (or boring), and it’s essentially ‘broadcast’ driven. (Ok, I’m playing slight Devil’s Advocate, but …)

    That we’re in what some people are calling the Age of the Amateur – and others are calling Web 2.0, hive mind, collective authoring or whatever – is probably now undeniable. What situations like this always make me think, however, is that there is a big difference between possible and desirable. Actually a very small difference for the techno-determinists among us …)

    We can now all comment. Great, but some of us are pretty bad at it to be honest. Without the resources of a major publisher/tv station/new agency, how could a job of replacing them actually can we do. Do we have the knowledgable columists and reporters on all subjects, the file and image libraries, the contacts, the off-record information feeds. No, nearly all of us don’t. If Watergate was broken by blog rather than newsprint, who’d have to blog to get the story even noticed – Paris Hilton? Is that a step forward? As long as I’m comfortable that enough of us look at anything new and go “Possible? Desirable?”, I’ll have more faith in our future, but human track record with applications of technology isn’t encouraging.

    And unless journalism finds ways to make money online (social media tyhe work of the left? Seen from the UK, the whole ‘information wants to be free’ thing always looked a bit right-wind libertarian to us …) sharpish, it’ll be journalism that suffers, not ‘dead tree media’. Given the importance of journalism in helping all of us understand the world around us in real-time (the journalism of today is part of the coal that becomes the diamonds of future history), that might just be important. It’s certainly possible technology could ultimately make us all more ignorant … and how desirable is that?

  • Don’t Compromise –

    First off, I believe “the end of journalism” is overhyped fear-mongering, akin to the idea that the end of high CD profits for music companies is the end of music.

    Newspapers are failing not because of the high cost of journalism, but because of the high cost of debt service, due to all the overpriced acquisitions that were supposed to be funded by the cash flow from the outsized profits that newspapers used to bring in.

    Good journalism will continue to flourish.

    I’m a big fan of the William Gibson quote, “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”

    You can see the future of journalism quite clearly in the technology news arena. There is great journalism – breaking news with original reportage, deep analysis, and more – performed by amateurs and small organizations.

    I like to tell a story about a conversation I had 15 years ago with Michael Leeds, the owner and CEO of CMP, the media conglomerate that once ran a host of technology newspapers and magazines. He told me that if he couldn’t get a new publication to $50 million in sales in three years, he’d shut it down, because that was where they made money.

    Today, Techcrunch and their ilk are making money – and doing better reportage than CMP publications ever did – with an order of magnitude less revenue.

    I think that’s the future of the news business.

    And as to twitter as a minimal newspaper, you’re right, that like most newspapers, it contains a lot of drivel. But it’s also uniquely configurable. Every reader chooses who to follow, and people who produce “good tweet” are becoming publishers, followed not just by their friends but by others who like their taste in news.

    It isn’t the original reportage end of the news business, but it sure replaces the front page headlines and the editorial process that decides what gets play and what doesn’t. And that makes for a stronger, more diverse news ecosystem in my book.

  • Tim, thanks for the response: genuinely much appreciated. From recent surveys in the UK, our print media are dying through big falls in advertising revenue and rising distribution costs: many of our national dailies get enormous online traffic (and plaudits for the journalism), but are lsing money running the websites. News used to be something we paid for; now we expect it free – as well as instant, everywhere and in every format. To hell with the set-up and maintenance costs. (No, it’s not the journalists who are expensive: but they are easier to cut that the other budgets …)

    Having railed against ecosystems on my own blog recently, part of me has to applaud your final sentence. But part of me looks at Techcrunch and goes ‘this is Wired magazine from 1995, but as a blog; big deal’. Another part goes ‘geeks writing abt geek industry stuff for geeks’. Is better than a lot of geek print mags, but its not about to give (lets pick a few at random) Washington Post, The Guardian, The Straits Times or The Sydney Herald a serious run for their money as reportage on the evolving state of nations, economies, socities and global politics, is it? And that’s one of my problems.

    Ok, we have new stuff that’s funky and cool and very now and democratic. And I can swap in jokes online with virtual friends in countries I’ve not even visited. Groovy. But life is about more than technologists using tech to talk tech – it has to be, fo everyone’s benefit. And when good journalism starts to be threatened with premature disappearance with no replacement model in sight, I’ll freely admit I tend to look at the technologists and wonder just how smart they really are. No offence intended. I don’t think current news – certainly in the UK – is a monoculture. Fragmenting it in the name of diversity and choice doesn’t help it, necessarily, or its audience: it just makes it scattered, diffuse and harder to find the good stuff.

    Twitter’s useful in some ways, some times. Yes, I choose who I read, but I don’t have the decades needed to find everything that might interest me. Like everything else online, there’s way too much of it, way too badly indexed and structured. (We’ve still not caught up with Vannevar Bush, now have we?) And it’ not just people who produce ‘good tweet’ who become publishers: every Tom, Dick and Jane *is* publishing – that’s part of the ‘problem’. Just because we have a channel doesn’t mean we have anything to say, and we may yet drown out those who devoted their lives to refining their skills in documenting and reporting our world. And is choosing your news source because you like it’s taste enlightening or not – I follow the news to keep in touch with the wider world, keep my brain moving and challenge myself. If I only read the news I like, I wouldn’t learn anything like as much. (And sorry, but wasn’t configurable personal newspapers another Louis Rossetti-ism in Wired about 15 years back? I see they just relaunched the magazine here in the UK – isn’t print an odd coice of medium for them? Isn’t that some kind of admission of defeat?)

  • Don’t Compromise –

    I think you miss my point about Techcrunch. It’s not just tech people talking about tech. Is there any real reason why there can’t be similar deep reportage on other areas?

    After all, arguably does a better job of covering DC politics than the Washington Post.

    There is a lot of great content on the web – just consider, which did such a fantastic job of calling the election – better than any mainstream media. Or look at RGEmonitor for economic coverage.

    Journalism will survive. It’s just newspapers that might not. And the best of the online folks will grow up into “real” publications, with real business models.

    And then it will be re-aggregated in new ways (aggregation being one of the key jobs of a newspaper, probably as important as reportage.)