Clay Shirky: wrong about newspapers

March 17, 2009

Clay Shirky‘s irritatingly trite post (you find it – Clay doesn’t believe in hyperlinking on his blog) deserves an equally irritating and trite response.

But in the spirit of pedantry, let’s just pick on one of his small but sweeping asides:

“The Wall Street Journal has a paywall, so we can too!” (Financial information is one of the few kinds of information whose recipients don’t want to share.)

(God put his commandments on tablets of stone, Shirky hides them in parentheses.)

What is it about financial information that makes its recipients so lacking in the reciprocity department? I mean precisely what exclusive, actionable information is lurking behind that Wall Street Journal paywall?

And what masonic financial secrets are revealed by premium subscription access (a bonus-busting £3.99 a week) to the Financial Times‘ Lex column? Does Martin Wolf also tip stocks?

Are people really trading off this stuff?

You know the answer, and it’s not what Shirky implies.

The reason these papers can charge subscribers is because their readers make up a community that uses the content to orient themselves in what you might call (if you were the kind of person who liked making up these terms) the topography of professional information.

To be direct, there is a value in knowing what everyone else in your community knows in order to place a value on your own particular knowledge.

The WSJ and the FT are promontories in the broad information landscape of their (still) wealthy and educated readership (although not everyone plays ball), who are willing to pay their modest fees for the privilege of reading them online, on the phone or on paper.

So the paywall content is not financial information whose recipients don’t want to share. It’s just good old-fashioned news and comment for finance professionals, read in the knowledge that a lot of other finance professionals will be reading it too and thus making it modestly useful in their everyday working lives.

It doesn’t mean that paywalls will work for everyone. For example, in Hong Kong English-language daily the South China Morning Post has one, but faces free competition from the Standard.

But when an aggressive price-cutter like Rupert Murdoch keeps a paywall in place (for just one of his suite of news products), you know it’s a model that has its niche. It’s just a niche based around a professional community, not around the value of information per se.

So that’s a different explanation to Shirky’s one line dismissal. Different but important.

Other annoyances? Shirky’s sweeping summary of Elizabeth Eisenstein‘s The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (that was a link Clay BTW) from thirty years ago, misses the really interesting shift she highlights (so far as journalists are concerned): the disappearance of popular news content from sermons. “The pulpit was ultimately displaced by the periodical press,” she writes in The Printing Revolution in early Modern Europe (p.105). Now that is interesting, but Clay probably doesn’t consult on it.

(Shirky’s breathless progressivism ignores the fact that printing standardised texts destroyed many of the innovations and experimentalism of the medieval literary world, e.g. the commonplace book, marginalia, etc.)

The real problem I have is that Shirky thinks that American newspapers are doomed because of digital technology, and on that he is just plain wrong.

US newspapers began their relative decline because the lives of millions of Americans were changed by two things that defined the 20C – cars and television – and that decline started at the beginning of the 1970s.

And guess what? Today there are too many of those newspapers, employing too many people and there are going to be less in the future.

But let’s save the cod history for the history of cod, and the futuristic waffle for the waffles of the future.

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