Categories: Media issues

23 March 2009


The death of journalism? Not likely!

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.

5 responses to “The death of journalism? Not likely!”

  1. Tim Pendry says:

    There is much sense in your argument but it falls down ultimately because it presupposes that newspaper journalism is of high quality and that the public will prefer newspapers or at least sustain a market for that reason.

    In fact, much of the material we read in the newspapers is often opinionated, unreliable and derived from special interest sources with continued errors of fact and interpretation. The public know this and are right to consider average print journalism not better than what is available on the internet to the educated reader who is able to use the search function efficiently.

    I could refer to Nick Davies’ devastating analysis of the effect of diminished resources on investigative, indeed all forms of journalism, in ‘Flat Earth News’ but I think the issue is much more fundamental than this.

    Journalists have assumed that they can do something better than a lot of their readers can do when, in fact, a lot of their readers can do parts of things that journalists do as well or better than most journalists. And others are prepared to do the whole in selected areas for free out of special interest, passion or love.

    The new technology permits the parts to be expressed and then reshuffled as a new ‘whole’ that completely undercuts the original business model on which ‘professional’ journalism relies. Journalists are not well resourced or even educated enough to compete with their own readerships ‘en masse’ in terms of either fact-finding or reasonableness of argument. There is always someone out there who knows a bit more unless a newspaper is prepared to resource individuals who are closer to Professors of Contemporary History than the jobbing writers that most journalists now are.

    A distinction has to be drawn between: writing to entertain; writing to inform; writing to share an opinion. For example, the ‘writing to entertain’ is now fully extended beyond small classes of scriptwriters, journalists and novelists to a vast public able to enter the market and expectant of much less reward than the professionals.

    The remuneration model has thus shifted so that instead of a closed group of a middling sort (the classic ‘professional’) we have a few writing stars are at one end and vast masses happily trying to break through at the other (much like sport or any other walk of life in a free market economy).

    The typical journalist is seeing his resources and his own conditions driven down to the level of the talented amateur who may o’ereach him with that single great concept or idea that the marketeers might like (Twilight, Harry Potter, nonsense like 1421). Fantasy and wild surmise are now culturally more rewarding because sufficient fact is available for free and can be tested more easily through one’s own research. Fantasy relates directly to the limbic.

    A counter-testing of reality via blogs and other freely available sources has almost completely unravelled the ‘spin’ culture of the mid-1990s. The typical journalist increasingly looks ‘spun’ and the punter takes a view for himself, separating out ‘facts’ from facts.

    There is a history to this. With limited sources of information, of entertainment (no easy visual media) and opinion in the past, a closed circle of writers and of newspapers could fill the gap in demand. A class of scribblers or wordsmiths created the ‘profession’ of journalism to ensure standards of style and of content that employers and public could relate to. They also could collar ‘sources’ so that they were the only intermediaries between power and the powerless. This process was a progressive one from the free-booting and defamatory eighteenth century until the high point of journalism from the mid-nineteenth century through to a few years ago.

    Things have now changed dramatically and quickly. Texting mentality has diminished style in favour of instant expression. You will see now how the internet generally tolerates grammatical and spelling error in favour of speed. Content availability is massive and the need is for either ‘now’ news that is not really assumed to be correct or deep analysis which can come later. People can be their own researchers and enjoy the experience. And no journalist’s opinion appears any more reliable than an informed blogger, while the political class spews out more directly its guff to its target market. The intermediary – the print journalist and his newspaper – is increasingly surplus to requirements.

    The issue is cash. Where does the punter really need to hand over cash to the journalist. The price of a paper was like a general subscription to somebody’s else club organisation. If you don’t need the club, you don’t pay the subscription. The advertiser or the oligarch might keep something going that is free to the public but it soon slips into the category of entertainment to fill a gap (like a freesheet on a train journey) that is not taken seriously or only as unreliable material from a special interest.

    If the newspaper is to get the cash of the punter direct, it has to be very entertaining indeed and not much more (and that usually means a portable specialist magazine or tabloid striving to get news stories that are easily available on the internet) or it has to be a source of information that is to be found nowhere else (but this is really market intelligence and will be handled more easily online with hard copy as mere back-up) or an opinion that someone actually wants to pay for. How many people would actually pay to read Polly Toynbee and just Polly Toynbee. The idea of star writers with their own paid-for blogs is unproven and unlikely – why pay for opinion in a world where punters no longer look up to others as better informed enough that they can reliably improve their lives.

    There seem to be only two ways for ‘newspapers’ to survive – by creating a brand in which jobbing information and opinion is presented as useful information and entertainment for information grazers and then re-issued through social networks (where the business model is advertising based and the story carries the advertisement as it travels) or the concentration of useful and timely specialist knowledge behind subscription barrier walls, often information of an extremely specialist nature disconnected from ‘opinion’.

    Or else, a last category which fits into your WSJ model, a few opinion-former (not so much reporter) vehicles linked to power elites who might survive as the outward expression of inward power – like the Financial Times. Yet these will be of little value in any truly deep analysis because they are stuck in ‘group-think’.

    Enough people are likely to share the ‘group-think’ in such cases that the newspaper can survive but that will be about the limit of it. Even these journals will partly degenerate into occasional analyses and reports of highly specific zones of interest of equally specific interest to their readership basis which will just have to pay more to access the service.

    The total number of print readers and of newspapers must fall and fall dramatically because internet broadcasting, social media and internet sources will combine to strip out the bulk of casual readers, divert advertising revenue and make the cost of distribution channel management (such as newsagents) comparatively prohibitive. Print newspapers just do not make sense any more until they can be downloaded to portable readers that everyone wants and can carry easily – and that still does not deal with why I should buy what will be free through my mobile in any case.

    Whichever way you look at it a world of a few largely online brands (purporting to be newspapers), specialised subscription journals and ideological or special interest propaganda sheets in all but intention is scarcely going to compete with online broadcasting and self-generated social network news flows.

    I don’t read newspapers (excepting the Financial Times) now and rely 90% on the internet and personal contact (including social network contact) for which I pay nothing except the hardware and the broadband access. I think that this is becoming increasingly typical. Newspapers are not doomed entirely but they are becoming culturally irrelevant – and so, increasingly, are journalists.

  2. Jennifer Bauman-Roy says:

    I agree with Tim Pendry’s comments and believe the latest survey from Pew Research** confirms the dire reality surrounding the print media. Newspapers are struggling to straddle their print and Internet editions at a time when ad income has fallen dramatically.

    I still subscribe to my local paper, but it is becoming increasingly obsolete, with many of the best features available On-line. It’s interesting to note that when I called to cancel my subscription, I was offered a pay-in-advance annual price that was cheaper than buying the Sunday edition at the local liquor store, so I signed up for another year.

    This is an indication of the desperation to maintain enough subscribers to run their presses!

    The saddest part of this decline is the growing irrelevance of good investigative journalists. I recently attended a meeting of the L-A Press Club where I sat next to Pulitzer Prize winning writers who are now collecting unemployment.

    This raises some serious questions:
    Who has the ability to spend 60-days on an investigative story these days? Who’s watching the taxpayers’ backs? If Deep Throat calls the Washington Post, is anyone there to answer the phone?


  3. Tim Pendry says:

    We (TPPR) started working on an investigative media online operation last year but we had to suspend the project mostly because of the effects of the down-turn on the business model (the shift of advertisers from print to online was no longer following a predictable trajectory).

    But we came across another problem. Investigative journalists operating in a print environment seemed psychologically unable to drag themselves into the new model presented by online in which information could be presented under conditions of real time updating, constant correction and interactivity. And where the journalist, instead of being Editorial and we Management, could join a team without such distinctions in a common enterprise. And where high standards need not be cover for lack of scrutiny and efficiency. What was going on?

    Well, in the end, we deduced that many older print journalists had just had their brains wired by their training into practices that simply could not transfer to the new environment. It was like trying to get a monk to speed up and drop the hand-painted scrolling of something that happened two thousand years ago so that you could get woodcut illustrations and a story about the current religious controversy out into the market through the printed pamphlet. The hand-painted illustration had become a value in itself and society was expected to subsidise it for that reason. So it is with ‘quality journalism’.

    We haven’t given up hope but it is interesting that the only organisations funding significant investigative activity are the big US Foundations, the security state and corporations involved in litigation (which are pre-presented as dossiers to the media nowadays), and NGOs like (say) Global Witness collaborating with human rights or similar lawyers.

    All this material could just as easily appear on the internet. It has virtually died within local and national democracy – unless you count the egregious sting on various Members of the House of Lords by the Sunday Times recently. In effect, investigations are now not undertaken on their own merit as a service to the public and democracy (the hand-painted scroll), they are undertaken as a tool in political warfare programmes by ideologues and special interests.

    The requirement is for ‘true’ investigative journalism to adapt to the new media in response to this and this seems to require compromises that they are just not prepared to make – I just think they are scared of change.

  4. Kim Mason says:

    Tim Pendry has hit the nail on the head, by pointing out the presupposition that existing newspapers are of high quality.

    They’re not. The vast majority of them are awful, and have been for years. From lazy journalists rewording vested-interests’ press releases as news, to openly biased one-sided reporting (on all sides of politics), to dangerous levels of sensationalism to whip up reader interest, to simply getting it wrong, the current crop of papers stinks to high heaven, and I believe this is true world-wide. It is certainly the case where I live in Australia.

    When the newspapers were the only game in town, they abused the trust of their readers. They lost that trust, and now that they’re not the only game in town, most of their former readers couldn’t care less about their demise.

    My prediction; the industry will become so poor that they won’t be able to fund foreign correspondents properly, at which point people will realise that the root of all news bounced around by bloggers and other ‘new media’ was the large news organisation correspondents. The amount of actual reported facts on which to base articles will decrease. It is at this point that people will become willing to pay for news again.

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