Home' Technology Review : May June 2009 Contents FROM THE EDITOR
TECHNOLOGY REVIEW MAY/JUNE
Even 15 years ago, Joseph Addison and Sir Richard Steele,
those 18th-century London gallants and the founders of the
Spectator, would have recognized the modes of business that
characterized our newspapers and magazines. Not now.
For 300 years, two related sources of revenues sustained jour-
nals: subscriptions and advertising. But the Internet taught read-
ers they might read stories whenever they liked without charge,
and it o ered companies more-e cient ways to advertise. Both
parties spent less. Today, media companies are sickly.
As I write, the New York Times Company is threatening to
close the Boston Globe if the latter will not produce $20 million
in union concessions. But those cuts could not make the paper
profitable. The Globe, which the Times Company bought for $1.1
billion in 1993, would lose $85 million in 2009 without the conces-
sions. Everywhere, newspapers and magazines are going broke.
What can be done to save them? Among those who write about
new media, a fashionable wisdom has emerged, expressed most
energetically by Clay Shirky, a professor at New York University.
In "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable," a much-distrib-
uted post on his blog, he writes, "Round and round [it] goes, with
the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know
'If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?' To which
the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work."
The Götterdämmerung-of-mainstream-media argument has
a weak and strong formulation. Shirky himself is an eloquent
exponent of the gentler version. He argues, "Society doesn't need
newspapers. What we need is journalism." Shirky believes that
the coming decades will see a variety of nonprofit experiments
whose funding sources will be similar to those that have sus-
tained him as an academic, such as endowments, sponsorships,
and grants. One day, some innovator will stumble upon some-
thing that will reliably subsidize the journals of the future.
The strong version is most associated with Dave Winer, a
grumpy California software programmer best known for helping
to develop the Web-feed format RSS and for his blog, Scripting
News. Winer has written, and not without glee, "Fifteen years ago
I was unhappy with the way journalism was practiced in the tech
industry, so I took matters into my own hands. And then dozens
of people did, and then hundreds followed, and now we get much
better information about tech. It will happen everywhere, in
politics, education, the military, health, science, you name it. The
sources will fill in where we used to need journalists. ... Everyone
is now a journalist."
If media companies can't earn money, and everyone is a jour-
nalist, it follows that "amateurs" (Shirky) and "sources" (Winer)
will be part of a "decentralized" media (Winer), whose stories will
be distributed by "excitable 14-year-olds" (Shirky).
This is all folly and ignorance. Shirky, Winer, and other evange-
lists know nothing about the business of media. True, the journal-
ists who write about these matters for mainstream media often
know as little; I didn't understand much until I became the pub-
lisher of Technology Review. But Shirky and Winer are disgruntled
consumers and, as bloggers, advocates for an insurrection. Thus,
they are to be read skeptically. Their prescriptions would be more
convincing if they were less polemical and better informed by
some knowledge of what publishers sell.
Shirky and Winer share the conviction that media-as-a-
business, with its attendant professional writers, editors, art
directors, directors of consumer marketing, and advertising
salespeople, is dying. That's because they conflate mainstream
media with printing presses. As Shirky explains, "Printing
presses are terrifically expensive to set up and to run. ... [But] the
competition-deflecting e ects of printing cost got destroyed by
the internet, where everyone pays for the infrastructure, and then
everyone gets to use it."
For decades, most print publications have cheaply rented
presses owned by third parties---but let that go. The printing press
stands here as an objective correlative for the material production
and distribution of media. Shirky and Winer's real error is that
the physical is the least of it. The creation of good journalism is a
tremendously laborious process, requiring an infrastructure more
expensive than any press. The illustration and design of stories
has an infrastructure, too. Developing an audience that will attract
particular advertisers requires another infrastructure. Selling
advertising requires yet another. These structures, which allow
publications to reach large, coherent audiences, can exist only
within complex organizations, mostly businesses.
Some of those structures must be reinvented for the Internet.
Others, particularly editorial, still work well. I am sure of this,
because the number of people who read newspapers and maga-
zines is growing. Of course, with few exceptions that growth is
all digital. To take one example, between 14 million and 22 mil-
NEWSPAPERS AND MAGAZINES WON'T VANISH.
BUT THEY WILL CHANGE.
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