No news isn't good news

Today the Seattle Post Intelligencer is shuttering its doors after 146 years and becoming a Web-only news service. On this St. Patty's Day let us raise a glass and drink a toast to a once-great newspaper.

The Post-Intelligencer is the biggest daily to go Web only, and the changes come at a big price. Staff size is shrinking from 181 employees to about 40, with half of those dedicated to news gathering.

Net maven and NYU prof Clay Shirky has written a long thoughtful post called "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable" that echoes some of what I posted previously here ("Did the blogosphere kill newspapers?"), only more deeply thoughtish and eloquentlike:

Print media does much of society's heavy journalistic lifting, from flooding the zone - covering every angle of a huge story - to the daily grind of attending the City Council meeting, just in case. This coverage creates benefits even for people who aren't newspaper readers, because the work of print journalists is used by everyone from politicians to district attorneys to talk radio hosts to bloggers. The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; "You're gonna miss us when we're gone!" has never been much of a business model. So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?

Shirky's answer? "I don't know. Noboby knows."

His point is that we are living through a media revolution, just as those in Gutenberg's time lived through a media revolution, and we don't know what's on the other side. Newspapers are dying. We don't know what will replace them, but (hopefully) something will. Paper and ink are no longer essential; but the hard work that went into them still is.

Society doesn't need newspapers. What we need is journalism.

Here's what I find ironic, or at least telling. Though Shirky is a tech-savvy guy who teaches about new media and interactive telecommunications at the college level, he's using the most bare-bones default Wordpress template on earth. There are exactly zero hyperlinks in his piece and no tags either. You certainly won't find any Digg buttons, Slashdot links, or other promotional tools. If he tried to do that at, say, Computerworld, he'd be slapped upside the head.

[Update: I don't mean to single out CW here. Every publishing site wants its bloggers to do whatever they can to appease the Google gods and the Diggerati. It's just part of the game these days.]

It's a 2,772-word think piece that would look absolutely spot on in The Atlantic, Harpers, or The New Yorker (though in that instance it would have to be at least five times longer). But it's not a blog post. It's really an anti-blog post.

It's like writing about Gutenberg's printing press in 1500 using a goose quill and a scroll of parchment. And I suspect maybe that's part of his point. I think Shirky's trying to prove that ideas matter more than the medium via which they are delivered.

Though Shirky's essay is spreading organically across the Net -- as I write this, nearly 400 other blogs had linked to it - it's really the exception. By and large, the Web does not reward thoughtfulness or originality. Speed and reach are what counts. Economically, the Web has yet to prove it can support the kind of staffing required to really cover the news, at least the way newspapers have traditionally done it. Crowd sourcing and citizen journalism can help, but I don't see them as substitutes for professional newsgathering. (And if anyone out there sees another alternative that I'm missing, don't be shy -- tell me what you think.) Maybe that's just my own personal bias.

Shirky is hopeful. Something will come up. It always does. But what we'll end up losing in the process won't be known for a long time - probably not until it's too late.

When not toasting the passing of newspapers, Dan Tynan tends his blogs, Culture Crash and Tynan on Tech. Erin go braugh, y'all.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon