Another Attempt At Rescuing Newspapers And Magazines
from the but-where's-the-value dept
A few friends have sent over Jason Pontin’s “manifesto” for saving newspapers and magazines, where he supposedly slams “new media” thinkers like Clay Shirky for “folly and ignorance” and “[knowing] nothing about the business of media.” That’s a bit harsh. I’m fans of both Pontin and Shirky, both of whom I tend to think are dead on right a lot more often than they’re wrong — so it’s quite interesting to try to find the points where they disagree. Unfortunately, I don’t think they actually disagree very much. I think the Shirky that Pontin describes isn’t the actual Clay Shirky. Pontin claims:
“Shirky believes that the coming decades will see a variety of nonprofit experiments whose funding sources will be similar to those that have sustained him as an academic, such as endowments, sponsorships, and grants.”
Really? He’s discussing the same Shirky analysis that many of us discussed a couple months back, and I don’t see anywhere that Shirky claims that journalism will be a bunch of nonprofit experiments involving endowments. At the very end he says that one experiment of many would likely include “sponsorship or grants or endowments” but he doesn’t say that’s all of the experiments at all. And I don’t think anyone denies that there will be such experiments (and nowhere does Shirky claim they’ll be nonprofit). In fact, even Pontin admits in his article that sponsorships are big revenue drivers these days. So he seems to first be dismissing Shirky, but what he’s dismissing isn’t what Pontin is talking about… and later he basically admits that one of the business models Shirky mentions is a good one. So why bash Shirky?
Pontin then makes a second mistake in tossing aside the idea that “amateurs” have a place in the modern journalistic endeavor, stating:
The comparative advantage of mainstream media is not the ownership of presses, but the collaboration of professionals. The creation of good journalism is a tremendously laborious process, requiring an infrastructure more expensive than any press. The illustration and design of stories has an infrastructure, too. Developing an audience that will attract particular advertisers requires another infrastructure. Selling advertising requires yet another. These structures, which allow publications to reach large, coherent audiences, can exist only within complex organizations, mostly businesses.
He’s right that it is a laborious process that requires quite a lot of infrastructure, but Pontin offers no support for the final sentence, claiming that these structures can only exist within businesses. Hell, ten years ago, I’m sure people would say the same thing about the creation of an online encyclopedia. Or the ability to market and distribute popular music.
Finally, Pontin seems to confuse the idea that everyone can participate in the media-making business with the idea that professionals aren’t needed. No one that I know says that editors and professional journalists go away. It’s just that their role changes, and the wider community participates in the overall process.
That said… if Pontin had simply skipped over the opening half of his discussion and jumped straight to his recommendations on what publications should do, I’d agree with almost everything (and, oddly, I’d bet Shirky would agree with most of them too, despite his “folly and ignorance.”) The recommendations are mostly common sense, along the lines of what Shirky and other media commentators have been saying for a while. Give customers what they want. Don’t try to charge for stuff that no one will pay for. Cut back on the excess and overlap. Focus on more interesting and creative ways to connect those who want to reach your community to that community, while being careful to not let it impact editorial. That’s all good advice, but nothing particularly new. The problem is that it’s not what most publications have been doing. Also, I’d argue that Pontin still misses the biggest point, which isn’t a surprise given his earlier dismissal of participatory media: many people want to be more involved in the media process, whether it’s commenting, sharing or even helping to report on the story. Any modern publication is going to need to enable those activities. Otherwise people will go elsewhere. But, of course, I speak from a position of folly and ignorance, so take that for what it’s worth.