Email this article to a friend

The ITT List

Monday, Mar 23, 2009, 12:54 pm

The Best Meditation on the Death of Newspapers

By Jeremy Gantz

Email this article to a friend

Have you heard the breaking news? Newspapers are in a death spiral. Sometimes it seems like more column inches/blog posts/magazine spreads are devoted to this crisis than the one currently decimating the U.S. economy, because journalists about to lose their jobs can't stop thinking about themselves.

To my mind, it's hard to exaggerate the crisis facing print media (including In These TImes!). But that doesn't mean I can't get sick of reading about it, particularly when no one has any real solutions to the basic problem: The Internet is superior to paper as a news and information delivery system in every way (except for journalists who want to get paid). Newspapers have laid off 6,043 people so far this year – that's in less than three months.

But I digress. The point of this post is to get you to read "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable" by Clay Shirky (Internet writer/consultant/NYU professor). I first read it one week ago, and immediately thought: The scope and depth of thought here is better than every other meditation/eulogy/rant on the crisis of journalism I've encountered. Better than this International Herald Tribune op-ed, which falls into the common trap of fetishizing newspapers. More illuminating than Walter Isaackson's Time magazine cover story last month. Even better than Whet Moser's fantastic meditation on the state of journalism and the Internet in The Chicago Reader a few weeks ago, which is saying a lot.

A Shirky excerpt :

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke...

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.

And so it is today. When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie.

Read this fantastic piece of writing right now.

UPDATE: A few days ago, the literature on How to Save Journalism grew substantially with Bob McChesney and John Nichol's "The Life and Death of Great American Newspapers over at The Nation. Like Shirky, McChesney and Nichols (who co-founded Free Press) bring a rare scope of thought to the problem. Unlike Shirky, they propose something centralized and ambitious be done about the existential crisis (the piece's headline is misleading). At the cost of about $60 billion. Another draw-dropping figure in this new age of draw-dropping figures.

Jeremy Gantz is a contributing editor at the magazine. He is the editor of The Age of Inequality: Corporate America's War on Working People (2017, Verso), and was the Web/Associate Editor of In These Times from 2008 to 2012.

View Comments