Clay Shirky writes of newspapers in an age of revolution: 15 years of anticipated problems* viewed optimistically, patched with one-size-fits-all solutions. Those solutions don’t attack the main issue: “the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.” It’s a revolution, he says, drawing on the print revolution of the early 1400s, and no one knows what will happen.
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. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) 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 sees the future of journalism as “overlapping special cases” with a variety of funding and business models. It’s a time for experimentation, and while he sees failure and risk, he has hope, too:
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 reporting we need.
Society needs reporting, not newspapers. That need is real, and worth restating:
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.
When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.
*Circa 1993: “When a 14 year old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem.”
Via John Dupuis’ post in Confessions of a Science Librarian.