Via Andrew Sullivan, I’ve just been enjoying a fine (long) post by Clay Shirky on “Newspapers and thinking the unthinkable.” Shirky is an “American writer, consultant and teacher on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies” and the author, most recently, of Here Comes Everybody. He has, in other words, good reason to gloat at the not-so-slow-motion landslide that is the current collapse of print newspapers. Usually, I’m suspicious of one medium’s eagerness to pronounce another dead long before the body has ceased breathing. But Shirky has hit quite a few nails on the head. Here, for instance, is his take on the fact that most big newspapers saw the internet coming from a great distance and still didn’t really put anything in place that would allow them to resist its encroachments:
The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s [by newspapers] 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.
In fact, he argues, the “unthinkable” is precisely what has happened, the “unthinkable” being that what newspapers used to do can’t really be done any more. As Shirky puts it,
There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke… 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.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, of the 269 people linking to Shirky’s essay at the time of writing—including several of the most-read comment sites on the internet—not one comes from a newspaper. They’ll get there in the end, I suppose.