Monday, March 16, 2009

More from Clay Shirky

Clay Shirky in front of a pile of newspapers, rendered in half tone dots
I posted yesterday about Clay Shirky's article Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, but here are a few quotes from it:

It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves -- the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public -- has stopped being 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.
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.
Everyone should read this piece. Because it's about a lot more than the roll of printed tree-matter that lands on my doorstep every morning.

As Shirky says, "When we shift our attention from 'save newspapers' to 'save society,' the imperative changes from 'preserve the current institutions' to 'do whatever works.' "

To reiterate an earlier post on this topic, I have a list of standards I'll be using to judge the success of whatever replaces newspapers:
  • beat reporters -- key to localism and citizen action
  • investigative reporters -- with budgets that allow them to dig, enough so that if they sometimes come up empty, it's not a disaster
  • editors -- not just copy editors (although I require those, too!), but overall editors who have an idea of what to cover, and who give us half a chance of turning information into knowledge
  • serendipity -- odd juxtapositions that put stories in front of us that we never thought we'd read
I don't need newspapers to line my bird cages or make papier mache, and I can even give up having a tangible object to hold while I eat my toast each morning... but without these four standards, our society will have lost something very important to sustaining a democracy.


Ms Sparrow said...

That is my biggest worry over the loss of printed newspapers--the end of the glorious diversity they offer. Every day I read stories in the Strib that I don't see anywhere else. At one time I wanted to be a journalist. To me, it was an exalted profession and still is. How sad that talented people who contributed so much to the Marketplace of Ideas are now losing their jobs.

elena said...

I keep getting stumped on this issue, by my own ambivalence. Reading your posts helps me think it through, and I am with you on those 4 requirements. Why aren't we calling for an end to magazines, I wonder? I'd rather get rid of sales catalogs and some (though not all!) of those monthly magazines than my local paper.

And then after awhile on a eyes start to hurt.

I agree with Shirky that the medium will always morph, but it will morph unevenly, with mixed geographical variations.