Change happens

Change is inevitable. Change is hard. Change is good. Change is rarely recognized in time. Change is life. That’s how we should be looking at what is happening to journalism today – not necessariliy as a plight, a conspiracy, a tragedy, a surprise but more as the inevitable change that was not recognized and exploited by some soon enough (for their own good).

That’s what Clay Shirky writes about in a wonderful post inspired by Tribune Company’s bankruptcy. It’s what Virginia Heffernan wrote about in her weekend Times Magazine column (which I had to read a few times to see the simplicity of her message about change). It’s also what I came away thinking about from a conference at near Oxford last week, where I wondered whether press barons, like the ennobled land barons who built Ditchley, are now out of their era. (I’ll post my Guardian column on the thought and the event Monday.)

* * *

Witnessing the biggest fall yet of a newspaper giant – in Tribune Company’s pathetic bankruptcy – Clay was inspired to look back at a post he wrote in 1995, a year after the birth of the commercial browser, called Help, the Price of Information Has Fallen, and It Can’t Get Up. Thirteen years ago – plenty of time to remake the news industry – Clay saw the change coming.

The price of information has not only gone into free fall in the last few years, it is still in free fall now, it will continue to fall long before it hits bottom, and when it does whole categories of currently lucrative businesses will be either transfigured unrecognizably or completely wiped out, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

That’s what he wrote then. And now:

[A] dozen years ago, a kid who’d only just had his brains blown via TCP/IP nevertheless understood that the newspaper business was screwed, not because this was a sophisticated conclusion, but because it was obvious.

Google, eBay, craigslist, none of those things existed when I wrote that piece; I was extrapolating from Lycos and it was still apparent what was going to happen. It didn’t take much vision to figure out that unlimited perfect copyability, with global reach and at zero marginal cost, was slowly transforming the printing press into a latter-day steam engine.

And once that became obvious, we said so, over and over again, all the time. We said it in public, we said it in private. We said it when newspapers hired us as designers, we said it when we were brought in as consultants, we said it for free. We were some tiresome motherfuckers with all our talk about the end of news on paper. And you know what? The people who made their living from printing the news listened, and then decided not to believe us.

So I’m calling bullshit on the Rosenbaum thesis, because no one has been “caught up in this great upheaval.”

[When anybody attacks me on the playground again, I’m going tell them that Clay’s my (blog) brother and he’s bigger, tougher, and smarter than them and their brothers.]

Clay sets blame:

By the turn of the century, anyone who didn’t understand that the business model for newspapers was a wasting asset was caught up in nothing other than willful ignorance, so secure in their faith in the permanence of their business that they assumed that those glaciers would politely swerve at the last minute, which minute is looking increasingly like now.

* * *

Virginia is hardly the tiresome motherfucker. In her piece, she genteelly surveys the change in media and then advises her mature, professional colleagues to imagine they are 19 again…

…spending a day on Twitter or following a recipe from a Mark Bittman video played on a refrigerator that automatically senses what ingredients are missing and texts an order to the grocery store (it will soon exist!). Then they should think about what content suits these new modes of distribution and could evolve in tandem with them. For old-media types, mental flexibility could be the No. 1 happiness secret we have been missing.

Change is happy.

* * *

Ditchley struck me as an all-too-apt metaphor for change. Here were editors and publishers – and both breeds turned academics – plus people in and out of government power worrying about democracy in the time of change in media and journalism. They were in an age-old estate that did not or could not keep up with the times but whose value is preserved today and put to good use. Is that what journalism will become: a relic, a museum, a memory? No, only journalism as it was. The journalism that changes will live on, carrying its values and eternal verities into the future.

Change is necessary.

* * *

Virginia is right to celebrate change. Clay is right to blame those who resisted it, because that informs the present and the future. If we act as if change just happens upon us – surprise! – in a sudden upheaval, then we miss its continuing flow and its lessons and the opportunity to keep up with it. That was what I was saying that led to the assassination attempt Clay references: All of us related to journalism must accept responsibility for and learn from the past if we have any hope of being part of the future (or others will see the opportunity, as they are). Then we learn Virginia’s lesson, which is just the lesson we try to teach now in journalism school.

The discussion at Ditchley turned around business models and the question of whether there is a market demand – and a looming market failure – for quality journalism. I believe there is a demand, but then I’m a cockeyed American optimist and obnoxious internet populist.

Market failure? Well, that depends on how one defines the market and its players. Did the public fail journalism? No. (Many would say it’s just the opposite but I’ll leave that to another day.) Is technology killing journalism, making it impossible to practice, what with craigslist and Google and Digg and the other characters in this game of Clue? No. Technology is enabling journalism to grow and improve in countless ways. What’s mortally wounded is old journalism and old models. There’s a market failure now in newspaper companies, not in journalism. They’re not the same thing.

Journalism isn’t dying. Yes, Virginia, it’s changing.

  • Walter Abbott

    The pull quote from Shirky’s column:

    Information is only power if it is hard to find and easy to hold, but in an arena where it is as fluid as water, value now has to come from elsewhere.

    An excellent piece; thanks for linking to it.

    Distribution systems. That is all broadcasters ever were. And that’s all the internet is and will ever be.

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  • Great post Jeff, and Walter – l like the wrap up.

    Do we really think that all media today is, is:
    “Distribution systems. That is all broadcasters ever were. And that’s all the internet is and will ever be.”

    If that’s the case – I wonder where media lost it’s way? It seems like there were better intentions at some point…

  • I think that journalism in the UK and USA is being killed by the accountants.

    They consistently cut back in areas that effect quality content, then cut again when circulations drop!

    Yes there is a constant and steady evolution towards online media, but there is a loyalty, especially to regional content, with the consumers of news.

    Mobile will fill the whole left by print operations.

  • “1995, a year after the birth of the browser”…
    Just because it is a blog doesn’t mean you don’t have to check your facts. The hypertext “Browser” was NOT “born” in 1994!!

    1995 was the year when even the die-hards should have finally realized that the Internet was going to kill off the newspaper business as we knew it then. The key event was the Oklahoma CIty Bombing in April of 1995 — the first “internet news event”. By that time, we already had a large number of people regularly worrying about and discussing the demise of the newspaper business on the online-news mailing list.

    bob wyman

  • bob,
    sorry, you’re right. i always say commercial browser (netscape: oct. 94). will correct that.

  • Good post.

    You know, I called bullshit on Rosenbaum for his characterizations of you as well from my personal blog. He did far more harm then good.

    But I’ll call bullshit on Clay and you both on the idea that no one has been “caught up in this great upheaval”. I’m a big fan of Clay Shirky. I share his writing with folks at work all the time and I’ve actually quoted him to you in various responses to you over the years.

    There have been many newspaper folks fighting for change in that industry over the past ten years.

    They’ve worked very hard to do just what you suggest:

    “All of us related to journalism must accept responsibility for and learn from the past if we have any hope of being part of the future (or others will see the opportunity, as they are).”

    You’ve met them. Every once and a while you do talk about them. But fighting for change from the inside doesn’t work as well as a narrative. It doesn’t stick for some reason.

    While I still agree with your overall points – the casting of blame squarely at ourselves for our fates is Web-tech ethic – and you’ve embraced it.

    “Journalism isn’t dying. Yes, Virginia, it’s changing” and that *is* what is important.

    We’ve moved from cassettes to CDs, to MP3s, but music still goes on.

    Who moved the cheese man. Who moved the cheese!

  • Henry Copeland once mentioned “The Innovator’s Dilemma” as the mechanics behind how the industry could end up in this state. I’m glad I read the book. I very much recommend it to anyone thinking about the impacts of change on established business and business models.

  • Ya know, there is part of me that is downright mad at this – it almost resembles a re-writing of history.

    At least there is to show just how competitive many newspaper websites were way back in the late nineties even.

    Bob Wyman (love the blog name btw!) nails the first Internet driven news event for me. This is old news to many.

    I maybe in your ignore list now Jeff, I’m not sure.

    But I am secure in knowing that of the many, many people losing their jobs and careers in the midst of this ongoing revolution – a revolution I feel part of as an early adopter, promoter, evangelist, software engineer, blogger and more – there are thousands that do *not* deserve blame for what is going on.

    I WILL NOT thumb my nose at them.

    They fought, and in many places continue to fight, to drive business and culture changes in organizations that still have relevant value in a world where we are no better informed then we were 10 years ago according to Pew.

    Change is life. But the big story here isn’t in the numbers of people who willfully looked the other way. There was some. But not the vast majority of people I worked with in the trenches at

    Hell no.

    And my heart goes out to them who fought (and continue to fight) with everything they have – to turn their ship around from the glacier that Shirky is right to indicate.

  • Karl wrote: “There have been many newspaper folks fighting for change in that industry over the past ten years.”

    Yes! And, now that many of them are being laid off, we’ll soon see to whom “blame” really should be assigned. Many of those leaving newspapers today aren’t ready to give up on journalism. They recognize that even if the papers have failed, there is still and always will be a tremendous amount of money to be made in the news business — once it is freed of its shackles to the printing press. Many of today’s “laid off” will view their severance packages as “startup capital” and will become tomorrow’s entrepreneurs. In time, they will become leaders of successful, profitable news and information businesses.

    The problem isn’t the journalists, it isn’t that “news is free”, it isn’t the Internet. The problem is that the newsPAPER business is tied to a legacy technology and legacy financial structures. At the same time that we’ve seen the value of newspapers decline, we’ve seen the value of and audience for news and information grow dramatically. Many of those laid off today will one day be quite thankful that they were given the opportunity to be part of building a new news and information industry.

    bob wyman

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  • You know, when your roof is about to burn through is a bad time to be arguing exactly how your front lawn become so overgrown.

  • Toni

    Here’s my bottom line, Jeff — I don’t want to work for nothing, and all the models you’ve proposed pretty much guarantee it. We can’t all be consultants jetting off to Europe and Dubai. So no more free journalism.

  • Toni,

    Then you have a choice, provide something people are willing to pay for, or get a job. Your decision. I’m ‘subsidized’, so I can fart around. But the audition is hard, and people have died waiting for a favorable finding on their petition. Actually making a living at blogging requires hard work, talent, and perseverance. You’ve got a lot of competition out there, and you’ll never dominate the way some did back in the early days. Build an audience, accept advertising, and put out your own line of products via Lulu and CafePress. Then your journalism and pontificating will support you.

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