As deeply invested as I am in good old books, it’s hard to look at the print industry and say, “There’s a modern, robust business model.” When the smartest move the New York Times can make is abolishing one of its own sources of revenue (however ill-conceived), it may be time to start thinking about worst-case scenarios.
Clay Shirky has written a brilliant piece arguing that newspaper people are now living in what is for them the worst of all possible worlds:
The unthinkable scenario unfolded something like this: The ability to share content wouldn’t shrink, it would grow. Walled gardens would prove unpopular. Digital advertising would reduce inefficiencies, and therefore profits. Dislike of micropayments would prevent widespread use. People would resist being educated to act against their own desires. Old habits of advertisers and readers would not transfer online. Even ferocious litigation would be inadequate to constrain massive, sustained law-breaking. (Prohibition redux.) Hardware and software vendors would not regard copyright holders as allies, nor would they regard customers as enemies. DRM’s requirement that the attacker be allowed to decode the content would be an insuperable flaw. And, per Thompson, suing people who love something so much they want to share it would piss them off.
This is compelling stuff, especially when Shirky says, “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.” But one of the ideas he doesn’t want to confront (one that forms his own nightmare scenario, I suspect) is that our idea of what constitutes journalism is so tied to the newspaper’s business model that it simply cannot exist without the extraordinary level of privilege (without being regarded the “fourth estate”) that giant organizations like News Corp and the New York Times enjoy. Shirky calls this linking of privilege and journalism an accident, but I’m not so sure. It may be that our ideals (the purity of journalism, Santos) are not so easily separable from the down and dirty business practices that sustain them.
When we think about the level of access that journalists enjoy with politicians and other elites, the ability of news organizations to deploy their agents across the world, the legal protections that they depend on, we are not talking about things that individual journalists or small organizations can maintain. We need only look at the impact of millionaire debutantes like William Randolph Hearst more than a century ago to understand how the interests of institutions can pervert the best journalistic intentions.
So it may not just be the newspapers that need rethinking, it might be all our ideas about writing and journalism that need a little spit and polish.