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 journals: subscriptions and advertising. But the Internet taught readers they might read stories whenever they liked without charge, and it offered companies more-efficient 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 concessions. 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-distributed 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 sustained him as an academic, such as endowments, sponsorships, and grants. One day, some innovator will stumble upon something 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 journalist, 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 evangelists know nothing about the business of media. True, the journalists who write about these matters for mainstream media often know as little; I didn’t understand much until I became the publisher 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.