Monday, 16 March 2009

Precipice Industries, Deckchair Realignment and Clay Shirky

There have been a lot of insightful articles over the last few weeks about how some genius piece of deckchair realignment might start to save traditional newspaper publishing. Most of them come from the US, where far more papers have far less national market share, and so are more vulnerable than the UK's virtual monopolies (having checked my Delicious for the links, most of them seem to have been written by Jeff Jarvis). Over here there are plenty of regional titles struggling, but their influence is far less than their north American regional counterparts.

To be fair, I've played fantasy newspaper saviour myself with my former employers at The Indy; but realistically newspapers seem the most likely precipice industry to follow record labels into the history books. Not in the next year, but as Bill Gates pointed out

"We always overestimate the changes in the next two years, and underestimate the changes in the next ten"

So although the Guardian expects to shut its presses for the last time in 2030, plenty of newspaper writers have made an eloquent case for the role that newspapers played in society - the corruption and deceipt that can only be made public by a free, independent and powerful press. And this piece by Clay Shirky elegantly dismantles every one of their arguments. I don't tend to lift big chuncks of text on this blog, but there are a few really powerful truths in it that I hadn't heard of or considered. (the full text is here)

The core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem

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.”

The expense of printing created an environment where Wal-Mart was willing to subsidize the Baghdad bureau. This wasn’t because of any deep link between advertising and reporting, nor was it about any real desire on the part of Wal-Mart to have their marketing budget go to international correspondents. It was just an accident. Advertisers had little choice other than to have their money used that way, since they didn’t really have any other vehicle for display ads....when Wal-Mart, and the local Maytag dealer, and the law firm hiring a secretary, and that kid down the block selling his bike, were all able to use that infrastructure to get out of their old relationship with the publisher, they did. They’d never really signed up to fund the Baghdad bureau anyway.

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism

Actually that last one covers it for me: when you remember that the link for advertising was with newsprint and heavy machinery and overnight distribution, and that it isn't the medium that brings down governments and brings criminals to justice but the people, then imagining the future isn't too diffucult.

It's just like the music industry where people still love music, musicians still love to be able to make their living playing music, but there isn't any money left for the record companies (for a breakdown of exactly how ridiculous this industry is becoming, check out Some Random Website on the PRS/YouTube debacle)


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