Noted: “Thinking the Unthinkable,” Shirky on newspapers & journalism

Yow! Clay Shirky’s “Thinking the Unthinkable” is an essay that’s needed to be written for a long, long time. I don’t necessarily buy everything in there, but it’s a vital look at this moment in media as revolutionary, and what exactly that means:

“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 [in which the old commercial-newspaper business models simply weren’t going to apply]. 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.”

This is all very fine. There are plenty of Cassandras amongst us who long for such affirmation. But there’s more still to his essay.

Shirky isn’t just observing the gap between hype, hope and reality; he’s doing so from a bracingly epistemological perspective. He’s investigating HOW new types of media affect discourse in a society. To do so, he looks at a book by Elizabeth Eisenstein on Mr. Gutenberg’s invention and its rippling sociocultural impacts in the year 1500 a.d.:

“To describe life before or after the spread of print was child’s play; those dates were safely distanced from upheaval. The hard question Eisenstein’s book asks is ‘How did we get from the world before the printing press to the world after it? What was the revolution itself like?’

“Chaotic, as it turns out. The Bible was translated into local languages; was this an educational boon or the work of the devil? Erotic novels appeared, prompting the same set of questions. Copies of Aristotle and Galen circulated widely, but direct encounter with the relevant texts revealed that the two sources clashed, tarnishing faith in the Ancients.”

This utter transformation of expectations about media and what it tells us, the profound dislocation of the verities, draws an astute parallel with the failed assumptions that have lead up to today’s cataclysms in the newspaper world.

However, I do question his assumption about the newspaper going away — it’s a tool and a medium like any. The models for producing a newspaper as it currently exists may be going away, but the need for such a medium will justify and motivate its own reincarnation.

It may not be owned by a Wall Street conglomerate. It may not have ads at all. But if people want it, they’ll make one, within their ability, to serve their needs.

The issue really is the breakdown and disintermediation of the industrial production model, which previously had suited the needs of a certain socioeconomic class of owners, but which in doing so DEcreasingly suited the needs of a diverse class of consumers. The problem was always there, but it’s something that the Internet has simply amplified.

Since everyone owns a printing press now, or virtually does, in this age of Twitter and Word Press, the real question therefore must be:

How will the producers and consumers/participants create alternative systems for journalism and related civic discourse, given the failure of the current mass-media owners to a) provide meaningful/relevant content regardless of medium, and, b) adapt their business model to the changes in their media?

As you ponder the answer — and we all have our own answers, don’t we? — keep in mind that the current owners most likley AREN’T going to adapt their business model to support substantive journalism and dialogue … or not anytime soon.

Their commercial model requires lots of eyeballs traded for lots of ad revenue. Civic journalism just isn’t supported by this. The fact that it SORT OF was in the past was an accident of the ad model, as Shirky notes:

“The expense of printing created an environment where Wal-Mart was willing to subsidize the Baghdad bureau. This wasn’t because of any deep link between advertising and reporting, nor was it about any real desire on the part of Wal-Mart to have their marketing budget go to international correspondents. It was just an accident. Advertisers had little choice other than to have their money used that way, since they didn’t really have any other vehicle for display ads.”

Commercial mass-media is simply a vehicle for delivering advertisements to consumers; the content is irrelevant as long as it works as such a vehicle.

Keep that in mind when considering the decrease in meaningful newspaper content (which predates the Internet), the increase of trivia, the refocusing on sports/style/entertainment, with an AP feed picking up the hard reportorial slack — this is a clear trend, and one that will certainly deepen at the commercial end of the mass-media spectrum.

It already is. Look at SFGate.com … lots of lifestyle coverage + the AP feed, with a sliver of serious local coverage from the embattled Chronicle newsroom.

We may have brave commercial entrepreneurs who stake out territory for serious reporting in the online medium. But that’s not where the serious money’s gonna be, and those who stick it out will be be rare birds, or at least not connected to the profit expectations of the Wall Street milieu.

Fortunately, there are a lot more players who can access the mass medium these days, and they’ll be — they ARE — the ones working out the differences between serious money and serious journalism.

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