“Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable”, by Clay Shirky

Doomsday!  Clay Shirky in this blog post predicts the end of newspapers as we know it.  He says that the “unthinkable”—a scenario in which copying is widespread and content is free—is already taking place, but the print media industry has still got its head in the sand, using their set old ways to try to overcome what is happening around them.  The result is that the industry is paralyzed, unable to plan its next move to respond to what is taking shape right before their very eyes.  This is nothing less than a revolution for print media, simply because it has ceased to be the solution to the now non-existent problem of making information available to the public.

Shirky recounts the revolution that the printing press itself created in the 1500s, and claims that the printing press is now itself under threat from a similar revolution brought about by digital media.  However the primary reason that newspapers are in trouble is the impending loss of their monopoly on the advertising dollar.  In the internet age, individuals and corporations are free to go directly online for their advertising needs, omitting the newspaper publishers in the process.  And what happens from here? Shirky himself does not profess to know what will replace the newspaper’s role, and how, when it is gone. What he does profess to know though, is that the entire domain of journalism will go through a period of experimentation to find the next big thing to replace newspapers.

In his deeply influential book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn postulates that science does not progress in a linear fashion, but undergoes periodic revolutions known as paradigm shifts, in which the nature of scientific inquiry is abruptly transformed. He explains that scientists within a specific paradigm tend to see things in a certain way, and this clouds their vision, making truly major scientific discoveries rare.  However, when paradigm shifts do occur, a new worldview is formed that is radically different from the old one, transforming scientists’ view of the world.  The classic example of such a revolution is the Copernican Revolution (incidentally also mentioned in Shirky’s blog post), in which the Ptolemaic theory of Earth at the center of the galaxy with the celestial bodies revolving around it, was displaced by Copernicus’ discovery of a heliocentric solar system.

What Shirky describes sounds extremely similar to a Kuhnian scientific revolution.  The last paradigm shift was the printing press in 1500, and the next paradigm shift taking place right now, with digital media the heir-very-apparent.  Those whom Shirky describes with their proverbial head in the sand are the “scientists” of the old paradigm, still steeped in their outdated assumptions and trapped in their confirmation biases.  If the analysis of scientific revolutions can be further applied to Shirky’s digital media revolution, Kuhn said that in the natural progression of paradigms, once the new framework is selected, there will be widespread consensus on the appropriate choice of methods, terminologies and experiments contributing to increased insights, and problems (“puzzles”) will begin to be solved in the context of the new paradigm.  Using Kuhn’s model, I would add to Shirky’s piece to say that, over and above experiments, the publishing world can expect to see new methods, innovations and terminologies generating new insights and “mini-discoveries” in the brave new world of online publishing.

I thought Shirky’s most impactful line in his post is “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.”  May I be so bold as to suggest another amendment to Shirky’s post? What we need is good, honest journalism. Now if the profession of journalism is to go the way of Groundswell; that is, if people are going to get good, professional journalism from one another instead of from institutions, then how does the common person obtain the training in order for her to get to the level of professional journalism?  I became concerned that unlearned, fly-by-night journalists might soon be flooding the market.  My fears were allayed somewhat after some googling, in which I found some self-help guides to online journalism.  The content exists.  bighow.com for one is a huge resource for budding online journalists. With a coming tidal wave of journalists coming online in the foreseeable future, what the world needs is: first, professional training to keep them proficient; and second, ethical training to keep them honest.  The resources are there, will the online journalists consume them?

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