Many of you couldn’t give a hoot about the plight of newspapers and the future of media. If you’re one of the hootless, please move along.
If you do hoot, then you have some must-reading today, in the form of Clay Shirky’s devestatingly insightful post about the death of newspapers and how, for all of our squawking about it, most of us still don’t believe it’s happening at all:
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.
UPDATE: a couple of people have sent me snarky emails about not wanting to read another “newspapers are dead, man” article. Let me clarify: this is not one of those. I mean, it goes with that a bit, but the real meat here is Shirky’s explanation about how anything anyone says about what to do about it is rather meaningless at the moment. In so doing he makes what I feel to be a rather illuminating comparison of our current situation and Europe in the time of Gutenberg. He also makes the point that many others have sort of made, but none too concisely:
Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.
I know many are tired of this subject, but really, if you want to speak intelligently about the media, what it is and where it’s going, you’re going to have to engage with the points in Shirky’s post.