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.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Adam W. March 17, 2009 at 19:42

Newspapers are essentially affinity groups: trust-based portals (print or digi) for constituency groups. Newspapers, as did almost all old media organizations (and the music industry), held on too fiercely to the ways in which they exacted revenue streams (on which they grew fat – ads, classifieds, subs), while ignoring the revenue streams of the future (even if these ultimately were the same concepts but in different forms).

By doing so, they also ignored the evolutionary cycle of technology which continually (and without pause) makes the business of “making things” cheaper and less time consuming.

My point: each old media organization failed at recognizing they had a chance to grow ($$ and size) by providing services (whether obvious or not) to those people who had their trust.

Hindsight…yeah, yeah.

Paywalls are simply the last vestige of hope to retain that affinity audience by a desperate industry which did not embrace (either unknowingly or deliberately) other ways they could have and should have expanded. I guess for Rupert, he’s lucky that consumers believe membership has its benefits — whether perceived or real.


Ben Fenton March 17, 2009 at 22:30

Very good post, Adrian. I like Shirky’s style and imagery, but you are right that some of his glib 100mph comments don’t stand up to a more considered critique.

Two points that really need to be borne in mind: one is from physics, that the first wave of any blast, whether it be a storm-surge, hurricane or nuclear blast, is the one that does the most obvious damage and the after-effects are far less dramatic even if they can eventually be equally dangerous; the second is that American newspapers were, and still are, far lazier and flabbier than British newspapers which have been in recession certainly since before I started working in FleetStreet in 1987.

Ours are more adept at changing and far better at marketing than their US counterparts. The weak will go the wall, but those who can still produce something their readership values will survive in any platform because once the first wave of the revolution has passed over our heads, the simple truth will remain that quality content costs money to produce and can be charged for. Pity the commoditisers, though, for they are destined to drown in the surf.


Byron Sonne March 18, 2009 at 02:06

Monck, you just don’t get it, do you?


Adrian Monck March 18, 2009 at 06:32

@Adam – The Sunday Times Wine Club was never really going to be that killer future revenue stream…

@Ben – Agree esp. about US papers. The centralised UK media landscape is coming soon to the US, whether they like it or not – and it does have unavoidable consequences for the US democratic federalist tradition, but Americans have to address that politically, not by jeremiads on journalism.

(And the NY Times just has to make up its mind to stay in business long enough to be part of that centralised, national media.)

@Byron – a little elaboration with that comment? There’s a lot of things I don’t get…


Dilyan March 18, 2009 at 10:01

@Adrian – Not only will there be fewer newspapers in the future, but, because there will be so much fewer of them, their role and defining characteristics will change. Your criticisms of CS are all valid, but so is his underlying point: newspapers (as we know them) will disappear and be replaced by something that can hardly be gleaned from our current standpoint. That something or, very likely, one of those somethings may still be called a “newspaper” but it will not be the same thing we call that today.


martin cloake March 18, 2009 at 11:53

You’ve hit on something here, which is that all too often commentary on how media is developing seems uncannily to lead towards the commentator offering a consultancy service – we’re all consultants nowadays aren’t we, lol? (I do like your take in “How did newspapers try to save themsleves” btw).

I think Clay Shirky’s piece was an interesting read, but not the revelation some seem to think. I’ve said a few times that there’s an obsession with form over content which doesn’t help us as we try to work in an evolving media world.

The basic issue I have with Shirky is that when he describes himself as someone who writes about “Systems where vested interests lose out to innovation,” he seems not to acknowledge that many of the same vested interests are still, in fact, running the show. New media technologies have democratised the media to a certain extent, but not as much as some people would like to think. Monopoly capitalism hasn’t changed.


Andreas Kluth March 19, 2009 at 03:29

I’m certainly not going to defend Clay Shirky wholesale, but I thought the overall point he was making was well taken: that we are probably at or near a point analogous to a time slightly nearer to Aldus Manutius than Gutenberg–ie, a point when things were/are already being destroyed but it was/is not yet evident what would/will replace it.

I love these sorts of exercises of the imagination (and also once opened a series of articles with a nod to Gutenberg.) They are really thought games of that sort that Einstein used for his breakthroughs.

Having said that, even Einstein only had five breakthroughs in his lifetime, and in our context I have yet to hear a plausible vision for our post-Aldus age…. ;)


codyk March 19, 2009 at 06:11

Cars and TV.


No, seriously. You’re kidding, right?


Adrian Monck March 19, 2009 at 07:18

@Andreas – I’m all for imaginative leaps, I just find the sweeping asides a bit annoying!

@codyk – Perhaps I’m being too gnomic. Car travel (and the suburbanisation it allowed) destroyed the market for evening papers in the US – they used to be the most profitable market segment. And before car travel people bought papers in the morning and evening…

The evening news on TV dealt a further blow to both evening papers, and also changed the news agenda of morning papers because it was able to effectively ‘beat’ or ‘obsolesce’ print deadlines.

So cars forced newspapers back into the morning, and television forced them to shift their content, making it less ‘timely’ . And that happened through the late 1950s and 1960s and the first indication of the decline hitting was 1971.

Seriously. No kidding.


Paul Seaman March 23, 2009 at 16:46

Your take on this is good. I explore some more how Shirky is plain wrong on my PR blog here:


Chris April 17, 2009 at 12:06

Hooray! Great post. I couldn’t agree more with this statement:

“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.”

This is such a basic point — yet one that is so often ignored in the debates around the decline of newspapers.


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