Clay Shirky on Newspapers: How the Unthinkable Happened

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Clay Shirky is an adjunct professor of New Media at NYU. He writes about technology (okay, pretty much just the internet) and its effects on relationships and culture. Recently he posted a brilliant essay called Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, about what happened to newspapers in the 90s, how they saw the internet coming (and what it meant for the newspaper's business model), and what happened to those pragmatists who observed what was happening. In short, Shirky explains "the unthinkable scenario" for newspapers -- the one in which the internet's inherent strengths and behaviors (sharing content for free, reaching mass audiences on the cheap) would change the economic landscape for newspapers so much that none of their planned responses (micropayments, DRM, advertising, litigation) would work.

The piece opens (emphasis added):

Back in 1993, the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain began investigating piracy of Dave Barry's popular column, which was published by the Miami Herald and syndicated widely. In the course of tracking down the sources of unlicensed distribution, they found many things, including the copying of his column to alt.fan.dave_barry on usenet; a 2000-person strong mailing list also reading pirated versions; and a teenager in the Midwest who was doing some of the copying himself, because he loved Barry's work so much he wanted everybody to be able to read it.

One of the people I was hanging around with online back then was Gordy Thompson, who managed internet services at the New York Times. I remember Thompson saying something to the effect of "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." I think about that conversation a lot these days.

This is a really smart essay. Shirky knows what he's talking about, and his writing is entertaining. Here's one more key snippet:

The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the '90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: "Here's how we're going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!" The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes (save the unthinkable one) was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift. As a result, the conversation has degenerated into the enthusiastic grasping at straws, pursued by skeptical responses.

Read the rest for a smart look at newspapers in the online era.

(Photo courtesy of Flickr user Matt Callow, used under Creative Commons license.)

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March 17, 2009 - 10:33am
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