This week in media musings: Shirky speaks, and three new projects to watch
(A little about what I’m doing is here.)
— Clay Shirky talked about journalism this past week, and when he talks about journalism, people listen. Shirky, an NYU prof, has been regarded for years as one of new media’s most respected thinkers. But after his March essay “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” went viral and reached an almost epochal level among journalism and new media circles in just a few months, he seems to have taken on a “first among equals” status.
So consider his brown-bag talk last Tuesday at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center his sequel to that essay. In “Thinking the Unthinkable,” Shirky responded to the question of “What will replace the newspaper model?” with the oft-quoted (and oft-misunderstood) statement “Nothing will work, but everything might.” On Tuesday, Shirky expanded on that answer a bit, saying that the accountability journalism that newspapers produce will be replaced 5 percent at a time by bunches of experiments. But as he said in March, that doesn’t mean the experiments will succeed soon, so he gives a grim prediction that “Every town in this country of 500,000 or less just sinks into casual, endemic, civic corruption — that without somebody going down to the city council again today, just in case, that those places will simply revert to self-dealing.”
For somebody who’s been bashed as a newspaper grave-dancer, Shirky’s alarm sounds an awful lot like the one old-media “curmudgeons” have been sounding. But what makes Shirky different from them (among other things) is the fact that he doesn’t think the newspaper model is worth artificially propping up for much longer; that, in his mind, is just hampering innovation and postponing the inevitable chaos. The model is irretrievably broken, he said last week, because it’s been operating on an advertising model that overcharged and underserved advertisers and because its one-size-fits-all bundling of content doesn’t make any inherent intellectual sense.
These are all points others have made before, but Shirky has a knack for synthesizing and explaining things in an authoritative, coherent way, so his talk is worth a listen (or a read). Not a ton of opinion has congealed around the talk yet, but Dan Kennedy is struck by bleakness of Shirky’s vision, and Tim Kastelle says two of the experiments to work on, stat, are aggregation and filtering.
— As always, there’s plenty of new entries into the paid-content debate this week, and the battleground du jour seems to be micropayments. The Globe and Mail’s Mathew Ingram doesn’t like them because newspapers don’t have a monopoly on their industry anymore. Pat Thornton agrees and offers a few more reasons why they’re a “dangerous delusion.”
Jeff Reifman disagrees with Ingram, but says news orgs will have to provide more value if they want to start charging. In his rebuttal to Reifman, Steve Outing wins the “original idea” prize by proposing “micro-rewards” for regular visitors. (Meanwhile, the paidContent:UK/Harris poll says readers prefer a subscription to micropayments.)
— We also saw the rollout of a relatively high-profile experiment with a paywall, as the Minneapolis Star Tribune decided to bring back its “Access Vikings Premium” program, charging $5.95 for three months or $19.95 a season for its Minnesota Vikings coverage. David Brauer of the Minnesota Post notes that the Strib’s first try was a failure, but says that if you’re going to charge, sports is the place to start. Staci Kramer of paidContent says the price is OK, but the process is a bear.
— Another interesting rollout this week: Google’s SideWiki, which allows people to comment on blogs using Google’s toolbar. Jeff Jarvis, a self-proclaimed “Google fanboy” came out against it, saying that SideWiki divides the conversation and moves responsibility for it from the site owner to Google. (Later, he said Google should work to organize conversation, rather than start its own.) David Sleight says now that it’s the giant in the web world, Google needs to be more mindful of how things like this are perceived. On the other side, Louis Gray argues that Jarvis and his ilk need to stop whining and realize that the web’s past the point where we can expect to control conversation. (I’m inclined to agree with Jarvis on this one; just because the web is moving beyond that point doesn’t mean it should, and it doesn’t mean Google should be its enabler.)
— And finally, our third big announcement this week was the news that Warren Hellman, “the Warren Buffett of the West Coast,” is planning to launch a nonprofit local online news outfit in the Bay Area. Given the travails of the San Francisco Chronicle and that area’s willingness to jump on new concepts, this seems at the outset like a winner. David Cohn thinks so, too, and offers some great tips for Hellman going forward. Steve Katz has high expectations and pleads for Hellman not to let the project be boring. Dumbest opinion in this whole thing? The East Bay Express’ Robert Gammon, who’s worried that student journalists will steal his job.
— This week in depressing statistics: Newspaper advertising is way down, but probably hasn’t reached bottom, courtesy of the Nieman Journalism Lab’s Martin Langeveld.
— President Obama offered some words of support for the newspaper industry, but no definite position on Sen. Benjamin Cardin’s bill that would allow newspapers to reorganize as nonprofits. Slate’s Jack Shafer rightly hammers this idea, while a Sacred Heart University poll finds that nearly 8 of 10 Americans would be opposed to using taxpayer money to save newspapers. While a bailout’s different than Cardin’s plan, I think the public has the right idea here, too.
— NYU’s Jay Rosen offers the most succinct refutation I’ve seen (it’s on Twitter, so it has to be) of the idea that any one thing can “save journalism.” That phrase drives me nuts when people use it as some sort of magic wand to wave in headlines over posts in order to get more clicks, so it’s good to have Jay shoot it down so simply.
— Oh yeah, and programming guru Paul Graham published an essay on “Post-Medium Publishing,” arguing that now that print media’s physical medium is dying, they’re going to be forced to realize that they were selling the medium, not the content. Jeff Jarvis thinks it’s as seminal as Shirky’s “Thinking the Unthinkable,” but I think the fact that Howard Weaver and Robin Sloan were so easily able to poke holes in it probably shoots that assessment down.