Cement won’t go down for now. Journalism may – what can we do?

I guess what I learned when dealing with too much cement was how to make a buck from selling grey powder that doesn’t travel far and costs only like $50 per tonne. Commercially, that is pretty interesting.

Now, what is more interesting (I guess) than a very static business model (in 2,000 years nobody had a better idea how to build houses properly!) is how some business models are radically challenged by the digital revolution. Prior to grad school, I came across this question as well as I was able to witness how a large German publisher was wrestling with the implications of developments which seemingly overnight put their existence into question. It’s like running a barber shop until Gillette comes along. Not fun.

So, I try to smarten up about what “knowledgeable people” have to say about this problem. Through my class – yep, I’m trying to systematically learn about this – I stumble upon Clay Shirky’s take: http://bit.ly/TvCR1K.

A lot of me thinks about this article in terms of Dean Starkman’s article (http://bit.ly/Wqv5g4): “FON thinkers [the Clay Shirkys of this world], who emerged only in the last few years, represent a new kind of public intellectual: journalism academics known for neither their journalism nor their scholarship. Yet, the fact is they are filling a void left by an intellectually exhausted journalism establishment, and filling it with crisp, readable—and voluminous—prose that offers to connect journalism to the technocratic vanguard”.

Shirky’s article is quickly summarized: He does not think that newspapers didn’t see the internet coming. But, as they saw it coming, they came up with a bunch of excuses of why that will not be their Gillette moment – various assumptions why a facelift and a mild adaptation to the internet will do the job. They ignored what Shirky calls the “unthinkable”: that their business model in face has become irrelevant. As he raises the obvious question what will replace it, Shirky refers to an interesting analogy: in 1,400 – before Gutenberg invented the Printing Press – the world was vastly different than it was in 1,500 after the Printing Press brought disruptive change. During that process, however, so he argues, chaos was omnipresent. It was a revolution!

We are now in a revolution, says Shirky! And that’s not bad. Through experimentation we will find a solution. The revolution is happening right now and it is chaotic and that is great. And Shirky does not have the answer, but he proposes a different question than “how to save newspapers”: “What can we do to save journalism?”

Lots of words for a few simple points of which the biggest is “I don’t know either”. But, he is right we all ought to be thinking about a very real dilemma. Now, I can’t say I have never cursed about an article or thought a piece in a newspaper incredibly useless, but undeniably journalism fulfils an important function in society that we would miss if it vanished. I’m also too much of a private sector guy not to acknowledge the lacking business model which

In a way I appreciate the article’s honesty: he acknowledges not having the answer himself and suggests experimentation. That resonates with the entrepreneur in me – only when we changed entirely our business model did we position ourselves for (possible) success. But that’s another story.

It’s late now and I don’t have a solution either. But neither does Shirky. I guess we all need to think harder about how we want to do this. It matters.


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