A self-confessed 'pretty unlikely early adopter', the digital guru Clay Shirky still proved to be uncannily prescient about the impact of the web - which is why Tom Teodorczuk is getting his media forecast for 2009.
Clay Shirky, with his bald head and composed manner, bears a resemblance to REM's frontman, Michael Stipe, and his prognosis for the future of the media industry could be encapsulated in the titles of two REM songs - Monster and Shiny Happy People. On the one hand, the leading web thinker and adjunct professor of New York University predicts further gloom for traditional media: "2009 is going to be a bloodbath." Yet he foresees that a recession may produce greater industry clarity by forcing radical action, which he explains as a boss saying to staff: "'Bonfire, this is Hail Mary time!', instead of: 'This year we made as much money as last year but we're still restructuring dramatically.'"
Much of the success of Shirky's recent book, Here Comes Everybody, about internet technologies and the effects of mass democratisation of the web, came from its simplicity and the absence of jargon. "As with the printing press, the loss of professional control will be bad for many of society's core institutions," he writes. In conversation he is just as plain-speaking, saying, for example, that "Management has a hard time destroying parts of its business unless the alternative, obvious to everyone, is that there is no choice." Based in the unlikely environs of NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, a stone's throw from a fusty independent bookstore in downtown Manhattan, rather than Silicon Valley, Shirky, 44, is unburdened by traditional media ties. After Yale, he worked as a painter and theatre director before becoming ensnared by the web in the early 90s thanks to his mother, a research librarian. He has consulted at News International and lists the BBC as a current client. "The advantage I had over people in the traditional media industry is precisely what I didn't know," he says. "I was a pretty unlikely early adopter."
No one, of course, can know what a future media landscape will look like. But, given that Shirky was among the few to have forecast 15 years ago that classified advertising would be sold online rather than via a newspaper ad, his crystal ball is more estimable than most others. This is his forecast:
The great misfortune of newspapers in this era is that they were such a good idea for such a long time that people felt the newspaper business model was part of a deep truth about the world, rather than just the way things happened to be. It's like the fall of communism, where a lot of the eastern European satellite states had an easier time because there were still people alive who remembered life before the Soviet Union - nobody in Russia remembered it. Newspaper people are like Russians, in a way.
Jeff Jarvis said it beautifully: "If you can't imagine anyone linking to what you're about to write, don't write it." The things that the Huffington Post or the Daily Beast have are good storytelling and low costs. Newspapers are going to get more elitist and less elitist. The elitist argument is: "Be the Economist or New Yorker, a small, niche publication that says: 'We're only opening our mouths when what we say is demonstrably superior to anything else on the subject.'" The populist model is: "We're going to take all the news pieces we get and have an enormous amount of commentary. It's whatever readers want to talk about." Finding the working business model between them in that expanded range is the new challenge.
Why pay for it at all? The steady loss of advertising revenue, accelerated by the recession, has normalised the idea that it's acceptable to move to the web. Even if we have the shallowest recession and advertising comes back as it inevitably does, more of it will go to the web. I think that's it for newspapers. What we saw happen to the Christian Science Monitor [the international paper shifted its daily news operation online] is going to happen three or four dozen times (globally) in the next year. The 500-year-old accident of economics occasioned by the printing press - high upfront cost and filtering happening at the source of publication - is over. But will the New York Times still exist on paper? Of course, because people will hit the print button.
Books and magazines
If you pick a magazine at random, it will not interest you. For people who care about quality, it's easier to find it online. If it's a highly qualified niche magazine, something aimed at surgeons or firefighters, it's going online. There's no reason those things should exist.
The great advantage magazines have is glossy pictures. It's better to read on paper than on the web but it's much better to look at pictures on paper than on the net. Brides magazine is going to be the last one standing.
The book world is more secure. I think the big revolution is going to be print on demand. Imagine only having one browsing copy of every book in a bookstore. You could say "Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers looks good", and out pops a brand new copy. Why does a bookstore or a publisher have to be in the shipping and warehousing business?
The big fight will be between passion and mass appeal but I don't think it's a question of who will win. It's not a transition from A to B, it's one to many. The question is who figures out the business model that says it's better to have 6 million passionate fans than 7 million bored ones? That is going to be the transformation because what you see with these user groups, whether it's for reality TV or science fiction, is that people love the conversation around the shows. The renaissance of quality television is an indicator of what an increased number of distribution channels can do. It is no accident that this started with cable.
And the BBC iPlayer? That's a debacle. The digital rights management thing ...let's just pretend that it was a dream like on Dallas and start from scratch. The iPlayer is a back-to-the-future business model. It's a total subversion of Reithian values in favour of trying to create what had been an accidental monopoly as a kind of robust business model. The idea that the old geographical segmenting of terrestrial broadcasts is recreatable is a fantasy and a waste of time.
What does the next decade hold? Mobile tools will certainly change the landscape, open spectrum will unleash the kind of creativity we've seen on the wired internet, and of course there will be many more YouTube/Facebook-class applications. But the underlying change was the basic tools of the internet. The job of the next decade is mostly going to be taking the raw revolutionary capability that's now apparent and really seeing what we can do with it.