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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.