Sunday, March 15, 2009

Save us!

Clay Shirky has an excellent post up about the revolution underway in the media, and why anyone who thinks they know what's going on (including myself, after reading it) is wrong.
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 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.
Because of the institution and program I'm attending for my Masters, I've had a lot of these "how will we save the news?" conversations lately. And one thing I've personally said a few times now is this: "News" will do just fine. Some of the earliest recorded texts we have amount to gossip or notes for public consumption. The human lust for information is not going to die, nor is it even going to slacken.

When modern professional journalists talk about "saving the news", what they're basically asking for is some way to preserve the large newsrooms, paid vacations and well-vested pensions that they got used to over the last 40 years or so. This is not going to happen. Or rather, it will be such a small, privileged breed that making it the objective of your career is a form of self-delusion, like starting a band in the hopes of being the next Rolling Stones or U2. Sure, it could happen, but you ought to go in to this business because you love doing it, not because it'll be a secure retirement.

Journalists who think that there's some intrinsic value to newspaper reporting or broadcast television ought to consider the fate of newsreels, vaudeville, or radio plays. There were intrinsic values to all of those forms, too, but none are relevant in the media landscape today. Trying to stand in front of the oncoming train and whimpering about how important newspapers are to democracy makes you look old, timid, and frankly demented.

Shirky again:
During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points. Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer and publisher, invented the smaller octavo volume along with italic type. What seemed like a minor change — take a book and shrink it — was in retrospect a key innovation in the democratization of the printed word. As books became cheaper, more portable, and therefore more desirable, they expanded the market for all publishers, heightening the value of literacy still further.

That is what real revolutions are 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. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.
There's a decent movie from the early 1990s called The Paper, starring Michael Keaton and directed by Ron Howard. The plot is interesting in retrospect because, with the exception of a few technological nods, the screenplay could be lifted almost wholesale and dumped backwards to any point in the previous 50 years without much tweaking. Now, 15 years later, it's almost entirely irrelevant to how news is actually gathered and produced. The word "web" is not mentioned at all, computers exist solely as word processors and 1 publishing appliance, cellphones are rare, and the photography is entirely celluloid-based.

(I should say that, despite its obsolescence, I still love that movie.)

This is an indicator of an industry in a maelstrom. When our basic understanding of how it works is changing so quickly that a 15-year old movie bears basically no detailed relation to reality, beyond "news happens and reporters tell us what it is", then efforts to save it are probably bound to fail, like asking how we'll make port on time when water's coming over the decks.

I don't think reporters have really grasped how much trouble the industry is in, given that the two basic functions of news organizations have been distribution and analysis. People talk about "stenography journalism", but it is a legitimate function simply to say the government is saying X, so long as there's also analysis, context, and a bit of opinion too.

This gets us to the interminable press vs. bloggers debate. So let's put it this way. Economist and financial bloggers have done a hell of a job writing about the recession we're in, and if you asked me to choose between the newsroom of the Wall Street Journal or the 3 dozen best econobloggers out there relying on an AP feed, I'd pick the bloggers in a hot second. Yes, we'd lose some value. But distribution was only a viable business plan when there were all sorts of geographical and temporal difficulties attached to news distribution. As for context, analysis, and opinion, well, let's just say that when I had to pay for the New York Times, I read Brad Delong instead.

The news distribution business is going to keep getting a lot smaller. Fewer papers, more concentration, less people paid to to analysis. But in an age where Google News is linking up AP, Reuters, and AFP feeds, it's hard to argue that people will actually go without. Local news, meanwhile, is exactly the kind of thing that's easiest for amateurs to replace. Being local, it's also most relevant to the audience and thus the most likely product people might be willing to pay for in the future.

As for context, analysis, etc. I think the one thing the blogosphere excels at is that, in aggregate, it provides a far more diverse, interesting, and often more accurate analysis of events than the paid-for media is able to. And then there's Nate Silver, who does it better alone than most of us could together. It's similar to the MSFT vs. Linux debate, with a few caveats, that I thought was always best answered with Torvald's question: "If it's a job for you and a hobby for us, why do you suck so much?" (I could be getting the wording, but not the sentiment wrong.)

Reporters, columnists, and paid media people of all kinds will all have to find their own answers to that question.

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