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.

  • Mark Rutledge

    “…but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the reporting we need.”

    With that kind of faith, who needs prayer?

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  • Paul Evans

    At my paper I got a lecture from an editor about how people talking about changing to meet the future were the cancer killing newspapers. He talked about how people (like me) had talked papers into the cardinal sin of giving content away for free and now were compounding that error by pushing for hyper-local efforts, unbundled web sites, and a focus on unique content. He told me the paper needed to start doing things like charging people to see our stuff. But most important was that they needed to stop listening to people like me. Your name, Jeff, came up more than once as a major figure who has led newspapers in the wrong direction.

    The next week he was named director of editorial innovation. Sadly, a true story. Happened just a couple of months ago.

  • @paul evans
    If you were to suggest a news website to me for the purposes of tracking that newspaper’s readership over the next few months, what would be the name of that newspaper?

  • Jeff, you understand what the product actually is: journalism. And people will pay for that but they will not pay for left wing, kool-aid drinking, opinion passed off as news, edited to banality, factually challenged, union driven, pap pretending to be journalism.

    You are old enough to remember Irving Stone – hardcore, smart, agendized – but every fact and every quote checked and rechecked. People will pay for that but they will not pay for re-written press releases and election cover which is all about horse racing.

    Newspapers and much of television has no future – journalism does. But it will not be conducted by J-school grads nor will it be done by the lazy buggers who currently write for newspapers.

    At the local level it will be done by people who care about their communities; at the state and national level it will be done by people who are motivated and can see ways of making a living doing what they love.

    • Marco

      I’m not sure people will pay for good journalism. Think about where growth has been in covering current events in the last 10 years?

      Talk radio (very biased), Fox News (moderately biased), Blogs (very to moderately biased) … they have all seen their ad revenue increase, while left learning ‘papers’ and other news outlets (prime time TV news) have seen their ad revenues decline.

      I think what you’re seeing is that covering current events (sometimes called News), is going back to what it used to be (when there were only papers), namely partisan coverage on both sides, and very little in the middle … and certainly no one is paying for that … although apparently they’ll agree to be advertised to.

      Personally, I enjoy reading the Economist, paying for a subscription (I’m told they are increasing their readership) … and while I like the quality of their journalism, they are most certainly not without their biases … albeit clearly stated.

  • Paul Evans

    robert ivan
    I can’t suggest a web site, at least in part because the web site at my newspaper is part of a separate company. An additional layer of irony in this instance is that the editorial innovation director has no direct ability to do anything online. Everything he would conceive online must be done in negotiation with a web unit that aggregates several newspapers owned by the over-arching corporation. The web units and the papers have a highly antagonistic relationship.

    A subsidiary issue is, of course, that identification of the paper or the web unit would likely result in my termination. I would like to play a role in what they are doing, but leadership has made it abundantly clear they don’t want staff input and that discussion of our issues, even in general terms, outside the company is grounds for firing.

    However, as of the last ABCs, my masthead was one of the top 20 US newspapers in terms of circulation.

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  • David H.

    I’ll take an endowment. Where are they handing them out?

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  • Clay Shirky is right to say we need journalism more than we need newspapers. He is, however, entirely wrong to be so pessimistic about the future of newspapers. In fact, Shirky misses the point completely about what newspapers were about in the first place. I answer his essay on my PR blog here: