Clay Shirky argues in his controversial article “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” that because the barriers to entry in the industry have fallen close to zero, the future of newspaper-type journalism looks bleak in the internet age. I beg to differ.
The merchants of doom such as Shirky overdo the gloom. He says it will make less and less sense 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.” This misses the point about what newspapers were all about in the first place (more on that later).
Here’s his take on what gave publishing houses the edge in times past:
“The old difficulties and costs of printing forced everyone doing it into a similar set of organizational models; it was this similarity that made us regard Daily Racing Form and L’Osservatore Romano as being in the same business. That the relationship between advertisers, publishers, and journalists has been ratified by a century of cultural practice doesn’t make it any less accidental.
“The competition-deflecting effects of printing cost got destroyed by the internet, where everyone pays for the infrastructure, and then everyone gets to use it. And when Wal-Mart, and the local Maytag dealer, and the law firm hiring a secretary, and that kid down the block selling his bike, were all able to use that infrastructure to get out of their old relationship with the publisher, they did. They’d never really signed up to fund the Baghdad bureau anyway.”
And, of course, he has a point. The internet has allowed us to publish and network for next to nothing. Moreover, most of the newspaper business models of the past did, indeed, emulate each other, particularly in their reliance on advertising.
He rightly points out that newspaper people often note in their defence that newspapers benefit society as a whole. But adds:
“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?”
On this he is just plain wrong. Business is in the business of satisfying otherwise unmet needs. Indeed, he shoots down his own argument when he tries to explain why the WSJ has been a commercial success online and why its success cannot be replicated by other newspaper houses covering different topics:
“The Wall Street Journal has a paywall, so we can too!” (Financial information is one of the few kinds of information whose recipients don’t want to share.)”
Shirky’s parenthetical assertion of the uniqueness of financial information is nonsense. It is convincingly dismissed by Adrian Monck. In short, newspapers such as the WSJ have an audience, a community of relations, and they relate to that audience by providing it with the information it requires, which it cannot easily acquire elsewhere cost-effectively. This was ever so with newspaper publishing.
What made the publishing industry profitable in the first place was never the costs and complexities of production, but the content that it produced that satisfied real consumer demand at a price. Hence the print-led porn magazine industry has been virtually destroyed by the internet.
But whilst some needs are now met elsewhere, there is still a mass of unmet need for news, information and comment. Quality will always matter. So will imprimatur. And it is quite possible that the ability of media brands to package material will remain (or become more) attractive.
Shirky is not alone in worrying about how many local and national newspapers are struggling right now. A combination of the internet and recession is hitting them hard as advertising revenue falls. However publishing was – like many other industries – a bloated boom-time industry that is now undergoing a reality check. That challenge is certainly made all the tougher by the ubiquity of internet information.
He captures the chaos of the moment well when he comments:
“The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.”
That goes some way to explaining why newspapers are finding it hard to stop the rot, but it does not substantiate Shirky’s core arguments.
It’s my view that to survive in the future the best newspapers will have to go up the value chain. They will have to straddle off and online, print and virtual digital media. We can expect the industry to contract and to become more focused – just as many other industries are going to have to do. Whether they are a tabloid or a broadsheet in style, newspapers will have to offer a unique package that meets a need and is supported by a strong brand.
It is also wrong to think that advertising is about to disappear as a source of finance for newspapers and media companies. The pot might get smaller in the age of mass internet access, but so will the number of terrestrial players seeking to access it. Regardless of that, there is going to be a lot of money available from premium brands wishing to ride on the back of the professional media’s audiences.
Charlie Beckett predicts, for instance:
“I think there are plenty of ways forward. I argue that most of them involve much greater public participation and a shift of power from media institutions towards creating social networks of news.”
Reading a draft of this blog, my friend Richard D North argued that news firms such as Reuters and AP might become people’s source of news much more directly, and price much of their news according to how fresh or detailed or specialised it was. And comment might go the other way, with star writers becoming their own profit-centres online.
It is clear that the relationship between print and online does change things. But there is going to be no such thing as a “post-news or newspaper-world” as Shirky seems to imply.