Clay Shirky’s recent column, “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” has earned deserved attention among those of us pondering the question of what happens next, and whether the financial models of newspapering and making local TV news can survive the current economy. Increasingly, it seems the answer to both questions is “no.”
It no longer seems like madness to suggest that what we’re living through isn’t the toughest times for local TV news as we know it, but rather, a revolution that will wash away the medium we grew up with, and usher in something different. That’s scary stuff.
Shirky describes the insistence that newspapers must be saved this way: “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. “
That is meaty, heavy stuff, and it is as applicable, I believe to local TV news as it is to newspapers. Anybody who refuses to believe that what we’ve spent our careers doing must continue to exist is at high risk of being rendered irrelevant. And in TV, as in any business, irrelevant is noplace to be.
The save-the-papers debate, as Shirky points out, boils down to a journalistic truism: newspapers put asses in seats at city council meetings, and get deeper into stories than local tv newsers have the luxury of doing. They have more bodies to sift through overnight police reports and court filings. They are essential to the survival of a healthy society. If newspapers die, who will do that work? Certainly not the “you’re live in the noon on the house fire” TV guy. He’s lucky if he can grab a five-dollar footlong before he starts crashing for his 5 o’clock package.
“The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; “You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!” has never been much of a business model,” Shirky writes. “So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs? I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it.”
Same again for TV. It’s gut-check time. Are you thinking about surviving the downturn? Or figuring out what’s the new thing–and how to thrive doing it?
Shirky writes: “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead. “
Society doesn’t need the six o’clock local news either. But it does need to know what’s happening. We still have a job to do, it’s just a question of where, and who’s going to pay us. That’s what I’m anxious to figure out, rather than answer the question of when the dry pipe in the sales department will start gushing cash again and all will be better. That sounds more than ever like denial.