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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