Mar 16, 2009

The center no longer holds

The center of gravity that holds the modern American newspaper together is not its loyal readers or its smart leaders or its talented journalists or its wealthy advertisers. It's the printing press; an imposing beast that's hard to operate and expensive to maintain.

As the Internet has matured, the printing press has lost its gravitational pull. Talent, wealth, loyalty and smarts are slowly escaping its orbit - some by choice, some not. New centers of gravity have cropped up to capture some of the emigrants, others remain adrift.

In a recent blog piece, Clay Shirky, who studies the Internet and teaches new media at NYU, gives the story a historical context and, in doing so, makes a compelling case for packing up our journalistic principles and setting out for new worlds.

On the failure to find a viable business model to save printed paper, Shirky offers a brief "I told you so" moment: Realists, who saw Doomsday coming, were corralled and ignored. Fabulists, who sold the snake oil of micropayments and other paper-saving cures, were heralded as "saviors."

The more powerful aspect of the story is the parallel he draws between the "experiments" that shaped modern printing and the experiments that will transition us beyond the printing press. He embraces the idea that we live a dual role in history - we are actors charting our course and passengers riding a great current. In saying so, he lets us off the hook for not being able to save our papers and assigns us the responsibility of creating what comes next.

Even if you don't agree with his arguments, the piece is worth reading (and I urge you to read the whole thing if only because I feel guilty for excerpting so much of it here):

During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points. Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer and publisher, invented the smaller octavo volume along with italic type. What seemed like a minor change — take a book and shrink it — was in retrospect a key innovation in the democratization of the printed word. As books became cheaper, more portable, and therefore more desirable, they expanded the market for all publishers, heightening the value of literacy still further.

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.

And so it is today. When someone demands to know how we are going to 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.


In craigslist’s gradual shift from ‘interesting if minor’ to ‘essential and transformative’, there is one possible answer to the question “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.


Andrew Edwards said...

Interesting piece.

One idea that came to mind after reading this is the possibility that in the last few decades, and on a national basis, the American media has been extremely inefficient.

Although competition breeds better service in any industry, journalism was a field where just about every big or medium-sized paper would send reporters to cover a given event such as the Olympics or OJ Simpson trial. The end result is that you have a lot of duplication (as as triplication and quadruplication) of work.

That made sense in 1999 or 1989 when readers in Atlanta or Houston may have seen value in knowing their hometown paper was providing staff coverage to the big news. In 2009, however, it's much easier for a consumer of news to find coverage of national events by reading the Web site of a national newspaper, or perhaps more likely, a Web site like that specializes in the kind of reporting the reader wants to see.

This brings me to what I think is one of the news industry's primary challenges.

Apart from the electrons versus printing press debate, it appears to me that there's the problem that the in-depth local news that readers crave isn't regarded as highly regarded among newspaper people as the national stories that readers can get from sources other than their local paper.

For years, the career path of many journalists has been to start in a small town and work your way up to covering big cities, big sports teams or big national subjects. At present, there is less opportunity for young reporters to climb that kind of career ladder.

But local news, the kind of stuff that's really important to someone in West Covina but essentially meaningless to someone in Fountain Valley, is comparatively immune to the above described problems as readers still need a local news gathering operation - paper or otherwise - to cover local issues.

The problem, as I see it, is that local news reporting at present is not assigned enough value within the industry to make many reporters want to spend a lifetime covering community news.

There is more prestige covering the State of the Union address than some mayor's State of the City speech and it's still probably a good bet that covering Sacramento for the shrinking LA Times pays more than being a reporter at the Huntington Beach Independent, which kicked it's share of ass when I was there.

The newspaper companies that survive the revolution will be the ones who figure out how to use local ad revenues to subsidize top-notch local news reporting. In other words, enough money to pay skilled reporters to want to spend several years at a small-circ paper not only because they can make a living, but because that's the kind of journalism that gets valued by their peers.

This is a period of creative destruction. If established newspapers cannot figure out a workable business model, there is probably some 19-year-old dude working in an ice cream store who can.

fishmonger said...

I completely agree, Andrew.

Gary Scott said...

Truly local journalism began to disintegrate when chains starting buying up or crowding out hometown newspapers. The chains sought to siphon off advertising from big metros, but depended on local dollars, local real estate spots and city legal ads, to operate. But as chains have had to cut back, they've done a generally poor job of following local stories. They've gutted their newsrooms and demanded the remaining journalists produce regional stories that can be shared by clusters of papers. However profitable an individual paper might be, it only matters how the company is doing. It's possible that once the chains lose their grip on the suburbs that a new wave of local reporting will crop up. Of course, talented journalists are always going to move on if the pay and benefits are too low to keep them. Some will chase prestige, but everyone needs to pay the rent and feed the family.

Anonymous said...

In the end most of the newspapers are going to be printed just a couple of times a week.

Honestly, if you clipped the news relevant to the community they are based in - I mean the news happening in their own back yard, I doubt they are writing enough for three news sections a week. Instead, they are running regional crap to save money.

Newspapers will grow again at some point, but if I were starting a paper now - I would probably only cover 10 square blocks, with no international news - I can get all I want on the war on CNN, but my kid's little league team and City Council won't be there.