A few quibbles with Clay Shirky’s ‘Nostalgia and Newspapers’

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Gutenberg-era printing press

Published previously at WGBH News.

Five years ago Clay Shirky wrote an eloquent blog post titled “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.” His essential argument was that we were only at the very beginning of trying to figure out new models for journalism following the cataclysmic changes wrought by the Internet — like Europeans in the decades immediately following the invention of Gutenberg’s press. Along with a subsequent talk he gave at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center, Shirky helped me frame the ideas that form the foundation of “The Wired City,” my book about online community journalism.

Now Shirky has written a rant. In “Nostalgia and Newspapers,” posted on Tuesday, the New York University professor and author wants us to know that we’re not getting it fast enough — that print is dead, and anything that diverts us from the hard work of figuring out what’s next is a dangerous distraction. His targets range from Aaron Kushner and his alleged apologists to journalism-school professors who are supposedly letting their students get away with thinking that print can somehow be saved.

As always, Shirky offers a lot to think about, as he did at a recent panel discussion at WGBH. I don’t take issue with the overarching arguments he makes in “Nostalgia and Newspapers.” But I do want to offer a countervailing view on some of the particulars.

1. Good journalism schools are not print-centric: Shirky writes that he “exploded” when he was recently asked by an NYU student, in front of the class, “So how do we save print?” I assume Shirky is exaggerating his reaction for effect. It wasn’t a terrible question, and in any case there was no reason for him to embarrass a student in front of her classmates. I’m sure he didn’t.

More important, Shirky takes the view that students haven’t given up on print because no one had given it to them straight until he came along to tell them otherwise. He writes that he told the students that “print was in terminal decline and that everyone in the class needed to understand this if they were thinking of journalism as a major or a profession.” And he attributed their nostalgic views to “Adults lying to them.”

Now, I find it hard to believe that Shirky’s take on the decline of print was novel to journalism students at a progressive institution like NYU. And from what I’ve seen from my own small perch within academia, all of us are looking well beyond print. In the new issue of Nieman Reports, Jon Marcus surveys changes in journalism education (including the media innovation program for graduate students headed by my Northeastern colleague Jeff Howe that will begin this fall). Citing a recent survey by Poynter, Marcus writes that, in many cases, j-schools are actually ahead of professional newsrooms in pushing for digital change:

A recent Poynter survey — which some argue demonstrates that educators are outpacing editors in their approaches to digital innovation — underlines the divide between j-schools and newsrooms. Educators are more likely than professional journalists to believe it’s important for journalism graduates to have multimedia skills, for instance, according to the survey Poynter released in April. They are more likely to think it’s crucial for j-school grads to understand HTML and other computer languages, and how to shoot and edit video and photos, record audio, tell stories with visuals, and write for different platforms.

Could we be doing better? No doubt. But we’re already doing a lot.

2. Aaron Kushner might have been on to something. OK, I’m pushing it here. There’s no doubt that Kushner’s moves after he bought the Orange County Register in 2012 have blown up in his face — the hiring spree, the launching of new daily newspapers in Long Beach and Los Angeles, the emphasis on print. Earlier this month, it all seemed to be coming to a very bad end, though Kushner himself says he simply needs time to retrench.

But Kushner’s ideas may not have been entirely beyond the realm of reality. Over the past several decades, great newspapers have been laid low by debt-addled chains trying to squeeze every last drop of profit out of them. This long-term disinvestment has had at least as harmful an effect on the news business as the Internet-driven loss of advertising revenues. Yes, Kushner’s love of print seems — well, odd, although it’s also true that newspapers continue to derive most of their shrinking advertising revenues from print. But investing in growth, even without a clear plan (or, rather, even with an ever-changing plan), strikes me as exactly what we ought to hope news(paper) companies will do. After all, that’s what Jeff Bezos is doing at The Washington Post and John Henry at The Boston Globe. And that’s not to say there won’t be layoffs and downsizing along the way.

Shirky also mocks Ryan Chittum of the Columbia Journalism Review and Ken Doctor, a newspaper analyst and blogger who writes for the Nieman Journalism Lab, writing that they “wrote puff pieces for Kushner, because they couldn’t bear to treat him like the snake-oil salesman he is.” (Shirky does concede that Chittum offered some qualifications.)

Chittum recently disagreed with me merely for writing that he had “hailed their [Kushner’s and his business partner Eric Spitz’s] print-centric approach.” It will be interesting to see whether and how he and Doctor respond to Shirky. I’ll be watching. Chittum has already posted this.

In any case, I hardly think it was “terrible” (Shirky’s description) for Chittum and Doctor to play down their doubts given that Kushner, a smart, seemingly well-funded outsider, claimed to have a better way.

Post-publication updates. After this commentary was published at WGBH News on Wednesday, the reactions, as expected, started rolling in. First up: Chittum, who apologized for his F-bomb, though not the sentiment behind it.

Shirky responded to Chittum’s first tweet, though his blog seems to be down at the moment. (It’s now back, and here is the direct link.)

Finally, Ken Doctor wrote a long, thoughtful retort to Shirky at the Nieman Journalism Lab. (And now Shirky has posted a comment.)

Even more finally: Chittum has responded at some length in the CJR. The end?

4 thoughts on “A few quibbles with Clay Shirky’s ‘Nostalgia and Newspapers’

  1. Pingback: Print still matters, even if some would like to believe it shouldn’t

  2. “although it’s also true that newspapers continue to derive most of their shrinking advertising revenues from print”

    The advertising revenue via print was always a ponzi scam. Advertisers paid for impressions in newspapers. A newspaper sent to home counted as an impression, one sent to a business counted as more than one. Even if someone picked up only the crossword, the ad on page B12 got an impression. The fuzzy math of the newspaper business was laid to rest online where an impression is an impression. The business problem of print is in your sentence above. Yes, revenue is derived from print because a print ad gets more impressions and thus, it costs more. An online ad only gets the impressions it gets.

    The printed newspaper ad model was always built on something of a lie. It isn’t bad reporting, it isn’t that people don’t read newspapers, its advertising impressions and math.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Matt: That’s part of it, but it’s not the whole story. Also important is that print is finite and online is essentially infinite, which makes print more valuable. Some online-only hyperlocal sites have done well with local ads by following the print model — a flat rate rather than CPM.

  3. What I get from this whole “kerfuffle” so far is we need to quit equating journalism with “print” directly.

    Print is a container, journalism is the context… from my point of view anyhow.

    So with that in mind, do you dress up the container and keep pushing for print subscriptions? Or do you focus on the context and your readers?

    (yes, I am creating bias with that statement)

    I know it’s not that simple, but if this kerfuffle was about journalism, since that is an ongoing and fluid subject … there is no “nostalgia” at all. If it was about the container of print, then nostalgia can apply.

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