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.

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Comments on “Another Attempt At Rescuing Newspapers And Magazines”

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yozoo says:


“Give customers what they want”

This is my main worry and alot of the problem with the modern news-information-journalism industry (in my opinion). It is suppose to be about the truth, at its core, journalism is the seeking and factual reporting of the truth. “Giving people what they want”, doesnt really have much to do with it and often, as can be easily demostrated today with examples like Fox News, the Drudge Report, etc . . . what people actually want rarely has anything to do with truth (or quality journalism).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Scary

That’s too cynical. People want truth, they want it to be engaging though.

The AP provides some of the most unreadable facts there are today. If word one was interesting, or presented in an engaging way, or was promoted in a relevant way, I would care.

What people want is a controllable thing, but it seems like journalists want to stick their heads in the sand and never engage the people they’re serving beyond throwing facts at them.

You want to read bad writing, open a newspaper and read a political column. The odds of an original or worthwhile thought being expressed are low.

Techdirt serves a journalistic function. It reports news, factual news, with analysis and commentary that’s worth reading. It’s engaging, sometimes funny. It’s engaging, and it’s not a regurgitated press release, which is what most newspapers are best at.

This may be the death of older ways. AP Style might be drastically changed, and most “objective” sources of news might be tossed for something readable.

And rare cases do exist where journalism is good and interesting and original.

It would be nice if the majority of the content had a personality or the ability to engage a person.

John Doe says:

Journalism isn’t dead, the journalists are. They have become a lazy bunch, doing one-sided stories, parroting industry press releases and publishing articles as fast as possible with little to know fact checking. Even worse, you have to search far and wide to find a journalist whose bias doesn’t show through everything they write.

Journalists are asleep at the wheel and are now grumpy because they are being awakened.

Jason Pontin (user link) says:

I confusingly used "sponsorship" in two different senses

When criticizing my straw-man version of Shirky (who I in fact really admire: he stands in my argument for those who think that “nothing can save newspapers,” the most explicit point in his much-quoted piece), I was writing about his belief that not-for-profit publications using sponsorships were the only thing that could save journalism. Later, I used “sponsorship” in the sense of custom advertising. That was confusing. I have corrected the error.

My broader point is that I am sure that professional journalims and its attendant business-as-a-media can be saved.

Hulser says:

Five computers

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.

Exactly. The intrustructure to which Pontin refers is really just the World Wide Web.

Pontin’s statement reminds me of another ridiculous statement quoted on Techdirt…

“Describe another form of entertainment that has a vibrant used goods market. Used books have never taken off. You don’t see businesses selling used music CDs or used DVDs.”
– Reggie Fils-Aime

Both of these guys are making statements that can be disproved by a few minutes of browsing the web. Wikipedia is only one of many examples of entities which produce professional or near-professional content using the contributions of amateurs or volunteers. Amazon and Ebay are only two of many examples of entities which make money selling used products. It’s like they’re either dangerously ignorant of or they just refuse to see what’s around them.

It’s as if someone today made the statement “I think there is a world market for about five computers.”

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