Hamed Saber http://www.flickr.com/photos/hamed/512309138/>
John Naughton has an excellent post in which he reflects on some recent pieces on the future of journalism. One of these is Clay Shirky's article Newspapers and thinking the unthinkable, which if you haven't read already, I heartily recommend. Shirky has that rare ability to crystalize all the current debate and hype around a subject and get to the core of an argument (sort of the antithesis of what I do). He examines the economics of newspapers and argues this is why they are essentially rendered redundant by digital media. The point he makes is that we confuse function with form:
Andrew Keen, with his uncanny ability to miss the point, responds to Shirky's piece arguing that the 'let-it-happen' conclusion Shirky draws is not inevitable:
up with a solution to the crisis of the news business? We certainly
aren’t trusting this unfettered market to solve Wall Street’s financial
crisis. … So if we can agree
that the news business, like healthcare and the financial sector, is
too important to fail, then shouldn’t the government be taking a more
active gardening/watering role in ensuring that at least one or two of
today’s digital flowers fully bloom in the future?"
The difference here is that unlike some other industries that various Governments are stepping in to save, newspapers were in trouble long before the current financial crisis, and crucially, we are seeing a replacement of newspapers by natural means. There is no need to save it since it is in the process of evolving. This is not the case with the financial sector. If we are to preserve every industry that faces change because of the impact of digital technologies it will make the current intervention by Governments look like an exercise in laissez-faire economics.
"So here are some principles for thinking intelligently about our emerging media environment:
- Think ecologically
- Think long-term. What’s happening might be as profound as what
happened after the emergence of print — and look how long it took for
those effects to work their way through society.
- Don’t confuse existing forms with the functions that they enable.
It’s the functions that matter. Forms may be transient, the product of
historical or technological circumstances."
Why is everyone so interested in the future of newspapers, you may wonder. Obviously they are significant social artifacts of our age and so their rapid change is interesting in itself. But more significantly they can be seen as a case study, or a warning from the future, about the impact of the internet on well established, often highly regarded, businesses. Unlike the music industry, which pretty much tried to close its eyes and wish the internet didn't exist, newspapers have been exploring a range of models to deal with the change. As Shirky puts it:
coming. They not only saw it miles off, they figured out early on that
they needed a plan to deal with it, and during the early 90s they came
up with not just one plan but several.
Most other industries haven't even worked through the range of models that newspapers have already used up. Watching what will happen next with newspapers as businesses and journalism as a practice will provide a rich source of models for others to adopt.
So, is education like newspapers minus five years or so? It's tempting to think so, and there are some parallels, but it's the differences that are significant also. Education isn't just a content industry most importantly, and has some relation to a physical institution often. But one lesson we should be examining in detail is John's third one. We shouldn't confuse education with the university system. The latter is a convenient financial and administrative method of achieving the former, but in a digital world there is something that was crucially missing previously: alternatives. That's what really killed newspapers – having alternatives.