via NYTIMES blog:
The Rocky Mountain News is dead. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer will publish its last issue Tuesday. The Detroit Free Press has cut home delivery to three days a week. The Star Tribune in Minneapolis and the Inquirer and Daily News in Philadelphia have all declared bankruptcy.
According to Clay Shirky, this is what a revolution looks like.
The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. . . . Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.
And so it is today. When someone demands to know how we are going to 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.
Shirky, a well-known Internet observer and analyst, has been writing for some time about the future of newspapers, or rather the lack of one ("2009 is going to be a bloodbath," he told the Guardian in January).
On Friday night he dropped his latest description of the existential crisis papers face, a long essay (some 2,700 words) that has been much discussed and linked to all weekend.
Shirky notes that newspapers were not blind to the coming of the Internet and he briefly reviews a number of the experiments they have tried to find success online (described in greater detail by Jack Shafer in Slate back in January). But all the experiments have pretty much one thing in common:
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 . . . 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.
Now that newspapers are starting to drop dead, the survivors are rapidly shuffling through these ideas again, desperate to stop the bleeding, “demanding to know ‘If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?’”
Shirky’s answer: “Nothing.”
Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.
With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.
Shirky, like many Internet enthusiasts, is future-positive. For him, it’s time to get on with the revolution. Forget about saving newspapers. Instead, experiment with new ways of doing journalism in the digital era.