How To Save Newspapers

Godfrey's Pelican Scroll
"Godfrey's Pelican Scroll" by Jeff / Godfrey

I recently read a blog post “Newspapers And Thinking The Unthinkable” from Clay Shirky. Not sure I’m adding anything new, but here’s how I digested his thoughts.

How do we save newspapers?! We don’t.

Ok… how do we save Journalism?! We don’t.

Did we save scribes after the printing press was invented? Nope.

Now that I’ve thoroughly pissed off all you journalist-types…

The way I see it, the rise of the publishing industry was based on three premises:

  1. People want information: news, entertainment, education.
  2. It takes a lot of time/money/effort to get information to people: printing presses are expensive. So are foreign correspondents. And sports writers.
  3. Economies of scale, FTW!

Premise one is still valid. Premise two? Nope. Premise three? Still valid, but who cares? Premise two is a big ol’ number two. Creating and distributing information is so easy, my 4 year old son can do it by accident.

No. Seriously. I set up an old laptop and put shortcuts on the desktop for Chrome, Paint, and Notepad. In Chrome, I added PBS Kids and Starfall to the fancy little visual bookmarks/new tab page. Yes, he has to ask to use the computer, and yes we limit the time. And yes! we monitor him, which is why I have this enthralling anecdote. The little dude is big on writing his name– usually with Notepad, sometimes with Paint… sometimes with real paint. On the wall. Anyway. One time, like any good, curious, experimenting kid, he opened Chrome and typed his name instead of clicking one of the visual bookmarks. He hit enter to start a new line, only it didn’t start a new line, obviously. It searched the interwebz for his name. 14,000,000 results. Don’t worry, nothing bad came up on the first page. But that’s a lot of content, and he found it by accident.

So, if we don’t pay professionals to report the news, there will be an unprecedented amount of terrible, worthless, idiotic reporting (and movies, music, and books) brought to us by amateurs! Yep. Just like sacred texts were no longer painstakingly (and beautifully!!) copied by hand after the printing press made it easier to translate things into common languages so that (gasp!) amateurs could interact with the text. That was a long sentence. Sorry. I’m an amateur. Anyway, society adapted. Think about what happened in the two centuries after the printing press was invented: first, the Reformation destroyed the Catholic Church’s monopoly on information. That paved the way for the Enlightenment. Which paved the way for shopping malls, SUVs and Time Magazine

But who pays the people that pay the professionals that report the news? Subscribers and Advertisers. Well, not so much anymore. Google and Craigslist already stole the advertising cash cow. So what about subscriptions? Not gonna work. At least, not like before. See, we amateurs used to put our limited resources in after the fact: we paid to subscribe. Now, we’re putting our limited resources in right up front: we’re creating the content. We’re subsidizing on the front end.

With platforms like Twitter, YouTube, and Google, the problem isn’t how to create and distribute information to the world (or the one person who reads your blog… hi mom). I can follow someone in/search for information in Columbus if I want to stay up to date. The problem is how to filter it all… but that’s a thought for another day.

Oh. One more thing/geek/parent tip: I’ve turned PBS Kids and Starfall into “Application Shortcuts” in Chrome now, so no more address/search bar fun for the offspring.

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