Journalistic heavy lifting

Well, everyone else seems to be blogging Clay Shirky’s Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, so I may as well, too. I think there’s a lot of sensible points for us to consider at work with our quarterly membership periodical. The take away? We need to do something different. We don’t know (and can’t know in advance) which something different will work. Try lots of things.

Print media does much of society’s heavy journalistic lifting, from flooding the zone — covering every angle of a huge story — to the daily grind of attending the City Council meeting, just in case. This coverage creates benefits even for people who aren’t newspaper readers, because the work of print journalists is used by everyone from politicians to district attorneys to talk radio hosts to bloggers. The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; “You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!” has never been much of a business model. So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?

I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it. The internet turns 40 this fall. Access by the general public is less than half that age. Web use, as a normal part of life for a majority of the developed world, is less than half that age. We just got here. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.

. . . 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.

Journalism has always been subsidized. Sometimes it’s been Wal-Mart and the kid with the bike. Sometimes it’s been Richard Mellon Scaife. Increasingly, it’s you and me, donating our time. The list of models that are obviously working today, like Consumer Reports and NPR, like ProPublica and WikiLeaks, can’t be expanded to cover any general case, but then nothing is going to cover the general case.

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

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.

One Reply to “Journalistic heavy lifting”

  1. My guess is that the hardest part of the evolution will be social and sentimental. Do we really need a gleaming tower topped by a neon sign to symbolize the newspaper’s centrality if it’s now completely online?

    As someone who’s print world collapsed in the mid-90s (small press publishing) I’ve been through this tectonic shift and know the grass is green on the other side. The question that will have to be asked is “why are we doing this in the first place?” If our answer is simply to maintain some beloved institution out of loyalty or nostalgia we’ll probably end up watching it withering away. But if we can recapture and reaffirm the first motivations–Clay Shirky’s “saving society” question–then we can stay flexible enough to see unexpected opportunities.

    In some ways I think this is all a good threshing time as it’s forcing us to really look at why we’re publishing what we’re publishing and to ask ourselves who we’re publishing it for.

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