The revolution will be further digitized

A large newspaper in a major American city has just gone all-digital. Depending on how you choose to look at it, the occasion is either tragic or revolutionary.

spiendThe 146-year-old Seattle Post-Intelligencer printed its last edition on Tuesday, becoming an Internet-only news source. In a report on its own Web site, the “paper” described the contours of the new, much smaller operation now in place. The P-I, as it’s called, is a “community platform” that will feature “breaking news, columns from prominent Seattle residents, community databases, photo galleries, 150 citizen bloggers and links to other journalistic outlets.” The New York Times notes that The P-I “will resemble a local Huffington Post more than a traditional newspaper,” with a news staff of about 20 people rather than the 165 it had, and with an emphasis more on commentary, advice and links to other sites than on original reporting.

The P-I venture may well fail — but in an essential way, that’s a good thing. Why that’s the case is explained in an indispensable essay posted by media-technology thinker Clay Shirky a few days ago. Glancing as far back as the 16th-century advent of the printing press, Shirky’s piece is an illuminating synthesis of the industry’s past and present — and, from where I’m sitting, brims with aphoristic insights pointing to a bright future for digital journalism. Original reporting in that realm — still much underdeveloped and ripe for innovation, in my view — will play a vital role in the further transformation.

Shirky writes: “People committed to saving newspapers [keep] 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.”

To the old journalism guard, that’s a heartbreaking epilogue. Which of course misses the point. (Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception, Shirky notes.) “With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data,” he continues. “It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem.”

Revolution is a dramatic word, but it’s exactly what we’re witnessing, if in slow motion. It began a little more than a decade ago and perhaps will require another decade before reaching a level of maturity and stability with new form. Shirky describes the familiar process: “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.”

(On recognizing “the importance of any given experiment,” see Shirky’s great distillation of the rise of Craigslist. Experiments are only revealed in retrospect to be turning points, he observes. And regarding “big changes stall” — the fashionable HuffPo model, anyone? With all due respect and admiration for its achievements during an epic election year, who really believes HuffPo’s almost-zero-reporting approach is the future of journalism?)

On with the greater experimentation and innovation, then. Many new attempts like The P-I probably will fail, and, in effect, we need them too. “There is one possible answer,” Shirky says, “to the question ‘If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?’ The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might.”


1 comment so far

  1. […] A key question on my mind is, how can media companies unlock greater potential with reader engagement and participation? It’s stating the obvious to say that there’s nothing cutting-edge at this point about letting readers loose with their opinions. (Put nicely, it tends to have limited value in unfiltered form.) Are there new ways to generate useful insight and information from the many smart readers out there, rather than just a lot of noise? This is an issue we grappled with regularly over the years when I was at Salon, and I have a hunch it could figure prominently in ways forward with news reporting in the rising digital realm. […]

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