THE Rocky Mountain News is dead. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer will publish its last issue Tuesday. The Detroit Free Press has cut home delivery to three days a week. The Star Tribune in Minneapolis and the Inquirer and Daily News in Philadelphia have all declared bankruptcy.
According to Clay Shirky, this is what a revolution looks 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... 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."
Shirky, a well-known Internet observer and analyst, has been writing for some time about the future of newspapers, or rather the lack of one (”2009 is going to be a bloodbath,” he told the Guardian in January).
On Friday night he dropped his latest description of the existential crisis papers face, a long essay (some 2,700 words) that has been much discussed and linked to all weekend.
Shirky notes that newspapers were not blind to the coming of the Internet and he briefly reviews a number of the experiments they have tried to find success online (described in greater detail by Jack Shafer in Slate back in January). But all the experiments have pretty much one thing in common:
The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: "Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!" The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes...was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift.
Now that newspapers are staring to drop dead, the survivors are rapidly shuffling through these ideas again, desperate to stop the bleeding, "demanding to know ‘If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?’"
Shirky’s answer: “Nothing.”
"Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.
With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. 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."
Shirky, like many Internet enthusiasts, is future-positive. For him, it’s time to get on with the revolution. Forget about saving newspapers. Instead, experiment with new ways of doing journalism in the digital era.
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...
Any experiment...designed to provide new models for journalism is going to be an improvement over hiding from the real, especially in a year when, for many papers, the unthinkable future is already in the past.
For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. Many of these models will fail. No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the journalism we need.
Steven Berlin Johnson, another future-positive, also weighed on the fate of newspapers and news on Friday, providing a closer look at the experimentation that Shirky puts so much of faith in.
Johnson’s comments came in a speech he delivered at South by Southwest Interactive, an annual convention for Internet types in Austin. Johnson’s been knocking around the Internet for a while. In 1995, he started FEED, an early online magazine, and was its editor. Three years ago, he launched outside.in, "a hyperlocal news and information service."
Johnson began by noting the explosion of coverage of Apple since the late ’80s, when as a college student he obsessively frequented the campus bookstore on the third week of every month, desperate for the new issue of MacWorld.
In the old days, it might have taken months for details from a John Sculley keynote to make to the College Hill Bookstore; now the lag is seconds, with dozens of people liveblogging every passing phrase from a Jobs speech. There are 8,000-word dissections of each new release of OS X at Ars Technica, written with attention to detail and technical sophistication that far exceeds anything a traditional newspaper would ever attempt. Writers like Jon Gruber or Don Norman regularly post intricate critiques of user interface issues. (I probably read twenty mini-essays about Safari’s new tab design.)
Johnson’s reached for an "ecosystem metaphor" to describe this transformation:
The state of Mac news in 1987 was a barren desert. Today, it is a thriving rain forest. By almost every important standard, the state of Mac news has vastly improved since 1987: there is more volume, diversity, timeliness, and depth.
I think that steady transformation from desert to jungle may be the single most important trend we should be looking at when we talk about the future of news. Not the future of the news industry, or the print newspaper business: the future of news itself.
For Johnson, the path from desert to rain forest is one he sees repeating itself over and over again — when he compares the coverage of the 1992 and 2008 presidential elections, and when he looks at at local blogging over the last few years.
When people talk about the civic damage that a community suffers by losing its newspaper, one of the key things that people point to is the loss of local news coverage. But I suspect in ten years, when we look back at traditional local coverage, it will look much more like MacWorld circa 1987. I adore the City section of the New York Times, but every Sunday when I pick it up, there are only three or four stories in the whole section that I find interesting or relevant to my life – out of probably twenty stories total. And yet every week in my neighborhood there are easily twenty stories that I would be interested in reading: a mugging three blocks from my house; a new deli opening; a house sale; the baseball team at my kid’s school winning a big game. The New York Times can’t cover those things in a print paper not because of some journalistic failing on their part, but rather because the economics are all wrong: there are only a few thousand people potentially interested in those news events, in a city of 8 million people. There are metro area stories that matter to everyone in a city: mayoral races, school cuts, big snowstorms. But most of what we care about in our local experience lives in the long tail. We’ve never thought of it as a failing of the newspaper that its metro section didn’t report on a deli closing, because it wasn’t even conceivable that a big centralized paper could cover an event with such a small radius of interest.
But of course, that’s what the web can do. That’s one of the main reasons we created outside.in, because I found myself waking up in the morning and turning to local Brooklyn bloggers like Brownstoner, who were suddenly covering local news with a granularity that the Times had never attempted. Two years later, there are close to a thousand bloggers writing about Brooklyn: there are multiple blogs devoted to the Atlantic Yards real estate development; dozens following the Brooklyn foodie scene; music blogs, politics blogs, parenting blogs. The Times itself is now launching local Brooklyn blogs, which is great. As we get better at organizing all that content – both by selecting the best of it, and by sorting it geographically – our standards about what constitutes good local coverage are going to improve. We’re going to go through the same evolution that I did from reading two-month-old news in MacWorld, to expecting an instantaneous liveblog of a keynote announcement. Five years from now, if someone gets mugged within a half mile of my house, and I don’t get an email alert about it within three hours, it will be a sign that something is broken.