The Industry that was Eaten by the Internet

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 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.


Filed under Media

14 responses to “The Industry that was Eaten by the Internet

  1. fnord

    I still take the newspaper and although I admit there is hardly ever any news there, I hold it in my hands and read while I drink my first cups of coffee. I’ve started my days this way for so long and it is a very comfortable habit. But, I too, have had the questions of why do I keep paying.

    I actually decided a few weeks back to not take the paper any longer but the carrier kept throwing it on my driveway and after this went on for a couple of weeks I felt guilty so sent in a payment.

  2. iggydonnelly

    “I still take the newspaper and although I admit there is hardly ever any news there, I hold it in my hands and read while I drink my first cups of coffee.”

    This is nearly word-for-word the rationale my dear spouse offers. She said it again tonight when I told her about this entry. She did not have an answer when I asked, “well okay, but you are really unhappy with the product you hold in your hands, why continue?”

    Was the line, “I just can’t quit ya” from the movie Brokeback Mountain? I guess it might be one of those types of things… A love affair that must continue…

  3. prairiepond

    Funny you wrote this thread about the newspaper. I was thinking of writing a newspaper thread when I got home.

    Like your wife, I was a newspaper junky when I lived in the city and got one at my front door, daily. When I moved out here in the boonies, no go. Any paper I got was at least a day late, and I had to go over a mile to get it. The experience was lost. I was forced to get my newspapers on line.

    Now? I sit by the computer every morning with my cup ‘o joe. It’s replaced the old routine, and I like it and get along just fine. And the bonus is that I dont have to dispose of the old newsprint. I dont have that many fish to wrap or birdcages to line. And I get a better variety of news by cruising more papers. I dont get to read as much in-depth, but it works for me.

    I need to eat and hold paws with the dog for a while since she’s being so pitiful, but I’ll try to blog here later. I’ve been thinking about why little newspapers like ours are doing better than ever, and the big guys are going broke.

    Any thoughts? No kidding. We are doing as well or better than ever, both ad wise and subscription wise.

    And and the cause isnt my brilliant writing or our investigative reporting, either!


  4. jammer5

    I still pick up USA today twice a week, along with a cuppa and a dognut. There’s something about sitting on the throne and reading the paper.

    I think the little papers are doing better because they hit home. The majors are generic, and try to reach everybody. What do people, living in Wichita, care about gossip from Clearwater? People, during this economic times, care about their home town, and the people in it. That Wichita were so lucky.

  5. fnord

    I was given a newspaper today that has been in print continuously for more than 130 years! The March 2009 issue of “CAPPER’S, from Topeka, Kansas, has 55 pages. The front page has a picture of daffodils and the headline article is, “Speedy birds flabbergast scientists.

    “Little songbirds cover more than 300 miles per day on their annual migrations, surprising researchers who expected a much slower flight…”

    Lest you think this Topeka newspaper concentrates on local news, there are articles like;

    MUSKEGON, Mich (AP) — “Restaurant workers sacrifice wages to help business”

    SANDWICH, Mass (AP) — “Seal enters hatchery, enjoys seafood buffet”

    JUNEAU, Alasks (AP) — “Wolf captivates locals in Alaska”

    and this one which wasn’t in the Wichita Eagle:

    Anonymous letters aid those in need

    WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — Five letters received by the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services in Wichita were straightforward, each containing a handwritten request: “Please use for prescriptions for the poor.”

    In side each envelope, stunned social services worker found ten $10 bills…

    There are recipes, there are poems, there are transfer patterns, gardening secrets, lots of mentions of God, a crossword puzzle, a few ads (but fewer than most newspapers!), classifieds, several stories of inspiration. There is not even one mention, not a hint of politics or national news, nothing about war, nothing about the economy, nary a mention of a murder or drug deal…

    They’ve been in business for over 130 years!

  6. iggydonnelly

    I think I have heard of “Capper’s” – they are a throw back it seems. I was quite impressed by their coverage. Fnord, where did you get it? Are they available in bookstores?

    I think small town newspapers serve the function of connecting people to one another, a function that large urban newspapers never attempted. That, I think, is the difference between the two sized media outlets. I believe small and large venues on the internet are finding ways to connect people – which may have more importance than the simple sharing of news.

    I was intrigued by Shirky’s contention that we don’t have to save newspapers per se, but we have an interest in saving journalism. What will result from the current revolution will be interesting.

    I enjoyed this entry.

  7. iggydonnelly

    I am wondering if my grandmother read “Capper’s” and that is why they sound familiar to me.

  8. iggydonnelly

    This was one of those automatically generated links. This guy has some ideas about the superior positions small newspapers may be in:

  9. iggydonnelly

    One of the things that I thought about when reading stuff related to this post was that print media was much more thorough than the radio or TV media. It seemed like the latter outlets summarized what was going to be in “the paper” tomorrow. If print media is eviscerated by the internet, will the latter sources do as thorough a job as the old print media did?

    Some things to wonder about…

    Will “blog news”, such as it is, have some impact on the shape of new evolving news creatures?

  10. prairiepond

    Thank you all. Iggy and Jammer, I think you are correct, and Jammer, I never heard it put that way but yeah, connecting people to people. That’s why the “chicken dinner” news is so popular. Folks dont read us for the news as much as they do for the people!

    From your link, Iggy.

    “What’s more, it appears that local news may be ‘in.’ In an ironic twist, small newspapers may have an easier time transitioning to the brave new world of online journalism than their larger and more-prestigious brothers, the metropolitan dailies. That’s because readers can access dozens of web sites for national and international news, but may have only one or two web sites (or perhaps none) for local news, encouraging some of these readers to continue to buy the print paper.”

    I think that is exactly right as well. We dont have a web presence. It just isnt worth it to us. The only way to get the hometown news is to subscribe. And the locals may know the news, but they also want the ads and to see what’s going on for themselves. It’s an awesome responsibility to know that people today still believe that if they read it in the paper, it must be true. Because the paper wouldnt print it if they didnt know for sure it was the truth! Yikes!

    I also believe we are still in, and headed deeper into, the “soundbite” mentality. My editor is always conscious about how long and article is, because we can only hold a reader’s attention for so long. And as you can imagine, I push the limits.

    I think the internet contributes to that lack of attention span. The news is given in short bursts on the internet, and when was the last time you clicked deeper than two pages when reading something of interest? TV contributes to the soundbite mentality too. They used to call it the MTV Effect, but all the TV news is like that now.

    I think that has a much to do with the demise of in depth investigative reporting as anything else. No one wants to read the whole, indepth article. As Joe Friday said “the facts ma’am. Just the facts”. If they want entertainment, they’ll go elsewhere.

    I totally agree that it is imperative for us to save investigative journalism. The physical paper media, not so much. But even magazines like Newsweek and Time give us ever shorter stories. It’s the deep and detailed reporting that served as the Fourth Estate.

    Heheheheh. And I think that one of the secrets of small papers is that they have little competition. I used to write the “100 year old news” gleaned from our archived papers. There used to be at least five newspapers in our hometown. The one I work for now was the very first, and is the last one standing.

    And fnord, we are celebrated our 13oth birthday the first week in March of this year. Our paper is a grand old lady too!

  11. prairiepond

    Iggy, I’m sorry. You are the one who said small papers connect people. Jammer, you were right too about small town papers filling a niche. Sorry I misattributed comments. But you know what I mean!

  12. iggydonnelly


    I read a John Grisham novel (or maybe by someone else) about a small town newspaper owner and I thought what a perfect life that would be. The story was probably commercial trash (I have been known to consume some of that) and there are likely downsides to the job, as well. An empirical fact: There are downsides to all jobs!

    Night all. Later. I.D.

  13. I still take the print edition of the Eagle, although like many, wonder why from time to time. I think it is the old habit of having the paper in hand, to read in the morning.

    Capper’s Weekly; the mention of it brings back memories of my youth, when everyone around Whitewater subscribed to it. I didn’t know it was still around, and find some comfort in the knowledge that it is still being published.