Web-guru, Clay Shirky, has provided in his essay, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, a brief history of the relationship between the Internet and traditional newspapers. In the spirit of full disclosure, my wife and I still subscribe to the print version of our local newspaper. Each month when we pay, and at those times when it’s necessary to recycle the newsprint, we ask ourselves “Why are we doing this, exactly?” We haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer, but neither have we been moved to stop subscribing. I think you could say we are late “un-adopters”.
Shirky claims that the newspaper industry in the early 1990’s saw the Internet coming, and they developed several plans to respond to the challenge. Shirky quotes a friend who ran the Internet services for the New York Times who was commenting on the investigation into the pirating of Dave Berry’s popular column. It had been discovered that an active participant in this piracy was a 14 year old boy from the Midwest, who had sent the column to alt.fan.dave_barry on usenet. The teenager was illegally distributing the column because he loved Dave Barry, and thought all should read him. Shirky’s New York Times friend said: “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.”
These multiple Internet response plans Clay Shirky reports that the newspaper industry developed, actually could be boiled down to one plan, which was “let’s keep our basic business model intact, lets just give that a digital face lift.” As an example of the newspapers’ faulty thinking was “Well micropurchasing works for i-Tunes, it will work for us.” But as Shirky points out “micropayments work only where the provider can avoid competitive business models” – something newspapers obviously cannot do.
To understand the current revolution which has resulted from the Internet breaking the old model of print journalism, Shirky takes a tour of the revolution that was spurred by the invention of the printing press. He references Elizabeth Eisenstein’s book The Printing Press as an Agent of Change. The upheaval and societal implications of Gutenberg’s printing press were no less staggering than the Internet impact is to us in contemporary times. Martin Luther’s use of the press to reform the Church had a huge destabilizing effect on both the Church and society at large – as a prime example. During the late 1500’s no one was able to predict where the changes would take society. Shirky contends that this lack of predictability is with us today in terms of the current revolution.
Shirkey maintains ultimately, that our society does not have to save newspapers, but rather we would seem to have a clear need to save journalism. He notes that setting up printing presses and distributing information in that fashion was a very expensive process – that helped newspapers stave off competition. The Internet has replaced the expensive printing press infrastructure with a format that is cheap and democratic.
This upcoming fall the Internet will be forty years old. While it is clear, to Shirky at least, the Internet has destroyed print journalism, just how it or some other system might evolve to replace newsprint, is not at this time, clearly foreseeable.