No Jan. 20 for newspapers

The other day, I was in a meeting of entrepreneurs who may well create a future for news when talk turned to the rise of the damned pay meme and one of the people in the room – who still works for a newspaper, for now – made a beautifully cynical gag, the kind we used to appreciate inside papers until they became hushed hospices. “We should start a company to facilitate micropayments and online subscriptions for papers,” he said, “and that will drive them out of business faster.” That’s one way to open up the opportunity.

The debate over payment has turned emotional, not to mention fact-free, unrealistic, and little more than wishful thinking – in short, religious.

Clay Shirky explains the conflict in just those terms in a wise post writing the history of the end of papers.

Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception. In ordinary times, people who do no more than describe the world around them are seen as pragmatists, while those who imagine fabulous alternative futures are viewed as radicals. The last couple of decades haven’t been ordinary, however. Inside the papers, the pragmatists were the ones simply pointing out that the real world was looking increasingly like the unthinkable scenario. These people were treated as if they were barking mad. Meanwhile the people spinning visions of popular walled gardens and enthusiastic micropayment adoption, visions unsupported by reality, were regarded not as charlatans but saviors.

When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. . . .

When someone demands to be told how we can 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.

But more are trying. That is the tragedy of the pay meme. ‘Oh, if only we can get them to pay again, all our problems will be solved. We’ll have two revenue streams again!’ Or then talk turns to the ‘shoulds.’ People should pay. We should have papers. We need papers. That’s the basis of the desperate ads papers are taking out, begging to be needed. Says Clay: “The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; ‘You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!’ has never been much of a business model.” Heartless, it’s said, but true.

Any experiment, though, designed to provide new models for journalism is going to be an improvement over hiding from the real, especially in a year when, for many papers, the unthinkable future is already in the past.

For the next few decades, journalism will be made up of overlapping special cases. Many of these models will rely on amateurs as researchers and writers. Many of these models will rely on sponsorship or grants or endowments instead of revenues. Many of these models will rely on excitable 14 year olds distributing the results. 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.

Yes, and until we make those experiments and learn from them, the optimists – Clay, Jay, me – are also sounding vaguely religious: faith-based. I have faith that there will be a market demand for journalism and we will find the means to meet them. But we can’t get there until we try.

That’s why I was in that room the other day, the one with the cynical jokes. You know you’re amongst journalists when you hear them.

Other industries should not take comfort that this is all happening to papers and won’t hit them. It’s hitting them now. We are going through more than a revolution (or crisis or recession or depression). We are on the tip of an epochal change, like the one Clay describes from 1500, that is similarly upending every other industry and sector of society: the great restructuring.