Don't Weep For The Past; Plan For The Future

from the disruption-in-action dept

Clay Shirky is angry. Shirky, who is often one of the most perceptive thinkers on the nature of digital innovation and trends has put forth a good old fashioned rant against people who ought to know better, but are so nostalgiac for print newspapers that they cling to any shred of evidence that there is a business model for print. He highlights the high profile collapse of the Orange County Register. If you don’t follow the newspaper business (or live in Southern California), you may have missed that a few years ago, some folks with no real newspaper experience bought the paper and doubled down on the print business, putting up hard paywalls on the website and spending lavishly on the print side. They wanted to believe that with money and paywalls, they could bring back the past. The crew of folks who love print and paywalls were happy to hype the story.

And, of course, it didn’t work. Because it couldn’t.

Shirky angrily bashes them for jumping on the hype bandwagon in a way that gave false hope to others wishing to bring back a glorious past (that wasn’t as glorious as people remember) and which is long gone:

There’s no nice way to say this, so I might just as well get to it: Kushner’s plan was always dumb and we should celebrate its demise, not because it failed (never much in doubt) but because it distracted people with the fantasy of an easy out for dealing with the gradual end of profits from print.

The most important fight in journalism today isn’t between short vs. long-form publications, or fast vs. thorough newsrooms, or even incumbents vs. start-ups. The most important fight is between realists and nostalgists. Kushner was running a revival meeting for nostalgists: “The internet’s not such a big deal! Digital readers will pay rather than leave! Investing in print is just plain good business!”

That was some old-time religion right there. It was fun while it lasted, for people who miss the good old days. For people who do not miss the good old days, it was not fun.

Of course, the print-first folks have an obvious comeback: plenty of digital businesses are flopping (often badly) too. Just a couple of months ago, one of the people that Shirky calls out in his post, Ken Doctor, was writing about the demise of an ambitious digital effort from the aptly named Digital First Media, which is trying to reinvent the newspaper business for a bunch of legacy newspapers while building a brand new digital airplane mid-flight. That effort has run into lots of trouble as well, as have plenty of purely digital news businesses.

It turns out that running a successful media business is not an easy thing.

And, of course, the nature of innovation often involves a lot of experiments, many of which will fail before people find the things that do work. So while I hesitate to jump on the singular failure of Kushner’s OC Register efforts as signalling much more than a single failure (in the same way that Digital First Media’s troubles may only really be indicative of the unique issues that company faces), Shirky’s overall point is still an important one. While experimenting with new business models and new ideas are important in this ongoing effort to figure out what might work (and discovering first hand what doesn’t work), if you’re going to experiment, you have to experiment with an eye towards the future, rather than nostalgia for the past.

In short: not all experiments are equal. Experiments that look to embrace new opportunities and to leverage what’s powerful about new media are attempts to understand and plan for the future. Experiments that look to just recreate a past world that does not exist any more are destined for failure, while (as Shirky notes) bringing false hope to those who wish to bring back those times.

Another way of thinking about it: if your experiments are about leveraging what’s changed in the world to your own advantage, it’s a worthwhile experiment. If it’s about trying to deny what’s changed in the world and hoping you can swim upstream against the larger direction of the world, you’re just asking for trouble. Innovation is often about surfing waves. Many people wipeout along the way, but you have no chance at all if you’re trying to surf at the wave rather than with it.

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Comments on “Don't Weep For The Past; Plan For The Future”

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That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Those who refuse to learn from history...

Oh yes, because that worked ever so well for the Belgian newspapers a few years back…

Hopefully Google handles the german attempted cash-grab the same way this time around, and just de-lists them until they come begging to be listed again. A little taste of humility would certainly do parasites like that some good.

That One Guy (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Those who refuse to learn from history...

In which case Google should just pull out of the county entirely, if they’re smart. Even a few weeks of people in Germany not being able to access any google services would probably cause quite the stir, with angry people calling up the politicians demanding to know what’s going on.

Not too surprising a politician doesn’t understand just what ‘monopoly’ actually means either, the only question is are they really that clueless as to what that word really means, or are just trying to score some PR points by ‘bringing down Google’.

techflaws (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Those who refuse to learn from history...

It would appear to be a combination of both as we could witness in the discussions of the “Leistungsschutzrecht”. Problem was that Google admittedly got lulled into believing common sense would prevail and did not hit back as hard as it should have. Sadly, I doubt they’ll withdraw from Germany to make their point.

Let me Print my Name says:

The author just does not understand. There are many, many, many instance where the lure of nostalgia has resulted in unabashed success. Take the vinyl recording industry. Oh wait a minute … …well how about price tags on canned goods …??? … oh yeah, well look at the movement toward steel dashboards in cars ….

However, the one enduring lure of the past is the one that drives the future today. The price of success is financed by lessons learned through failure. We need the OCR to pound in the final nail for the print media. And Windows 9 will drive home the nail for overpriced operating systems. We need these idiots. Because there is a final blow, a last straw and a final breath.

Tom Mink (profile) says:

Re: Re:

None of it ever goes away, it just exists on a different scale or develops a different purpose. Vinyl records are still selling, just to audiophiles and djs. Steel dashboards get made for classic car buffs. I would love a pricing gun the next yard sale I have– and I could get a used one cheap.

I haven’t a clue what scale or niche print media will eventually settle into. Locally, I see newspapers thriving in situations where the artifact itself is valuable like high school sports, weddings and other scrapbookable ephemera, and where the subject lends itself to a larger format like music publications that can tastefully use a full tabloid page for photos.

textgenie (profile) says:

Re: Re: Tom Mink

Voice of reason at last. Newspapers had their delights, and advantages, as well as defects. `Crowing over their replacement by screens which lack most of the tactile marking and handson handling benefits of paper is premature. Techno cant replace artistic values. Will video ever replace oil painting? Come on. The emotional attractions of English comics were huge when I was a schoolboy and used to go round the back of the private school I attended to the garbage dump to rescue copies of Beano which had been confiscated! Same emotional attractions are lost with newspapers. Same as handwritten letters and postcards. Falling in love with the new is fine but let’s praise those who try to rescue the old no matter how they mishandle it. Just because lemming ad agencies rush to the Net for good reason doesn’t mean the old stuff is worthless because ads no longer support it. I am subscribing to the Times as long as it exists on paper. Amazing the stuff one comes across which the Web wouldnt lead one to. And anytime one writes something clips on paper are a blessing compared to bookmarked stuff one has to pull up – about ten times as fast to use for one thing.

Anonymous Coward says:

dial up

I know a couple people in a mountainous region who have dial-up, and can’t get fios or comcast. They use dish for TV but it doesn’ work for internet. They ask us not to send them pictures in the email, as it takes too long to download.

One of these elderly people decided to get the local newspaper online, since she is vision-impaired, and she can enlarge the print and change the color to read it better. She will have to pay for it, as there is a paywall.

I don’t know if the subscription has actually started or not. She saw an interesting article listed on the site, but couldn’t open it, and asked me if I could open it. I couldn’t open it either, but found another site with the same article and sent it to her.

If somebody wants to make a “go” of an online paper with a paywall, try a region where there is no fios or cable – only dial-up, and where most of the people are vision-impaired, elderly, and can afford it. And make sure the home-spun articles are unique to the hollow, so any smart old gopher can’t get the same story from another source.

Rich Kulawiec (profile) says:

Some newspapers deserve to die

Take, for example, the Baltimore Sun:

Go take a look at the home page of the site this morning. Are there prominent/lead stories about, oh, the disintegration of Iraq, the latest round of Snowden revelations in Der Spiegel, or the actions of the Israelis searching for those missing teenagers?

No. Instead there are prominent/lead stories about a cop who killed a dog, Game of Thrones, the fact that Baltimore’s mayor apparently dresses well per fashionistas, the banning of smoking at the Baltimore Zoo, and the Ravens…who aren’t even playing football at the moment.

This isn’t journalism. It’s bullshit. It’s “infotainment”. It’s fluff. It’s stenography. It’s embarrassing to actual real live journalists who do what journalists should do.

The Sun, predictably, has been in a long, slow decline for many years. It will no doubt continue because its owners don’t care about journalism or serving the public or any of that high-minded theoretical stuff. They care about extracting as much money from it as they can, strip-mine style, before it finally collapses entirely.

It’s not alone. Around the US, other newspapers have done some of the same. The Washington Post of Ben Bradlee and Katie Graham is now the lapdog of the DC elite. The New York Times of Daniel Ellsberg was one of the primary cheerleaders for the insanely stupid invasion of Iraq. And so on. Newspapers put on a daily display of ignorance, cowardice and triviality while simultaneously criticizing bloggers and others who — some of whom are doing a pretty darn good job doing the work that newspapers USED to do.

Groaker (profile) says:


I have no understanding of the nostalgia for newspapers. The net not only provide news more quickly, but more importantly provides the means of verification of multiple sources at ones fingertips. This of course does not guarantee truth, but does significantly improve the probability of same.

The net also allows me to easily search for followups, which are usually buried in the back pages, and are essentially hidden from view.

The only concern that I have is the loss of investigative journalism, but that has been essentially on life support since long before the appearance of the web.

Ima Fish (profile) says:

I used to love newspapers. I mean I loved them. I’d get to school or work and spend the first half an hour of my day reading. It was awesome. I’d save some for lunch, so I’d have something to read then.

It was annoying at times. Signing up for a subscription was always a suspicious process, sort of like signing up for a gym membership. Why was it so shady and complicated?

If you bought from a local machine, sometimes it’d be empty or wouldn’t work. So you’d have to scurry around trying to find a paper.

Sometimes there would be missing sections to the paper, which always pissed me off.

Oh, and let’s not forget the ads. Killing a tree to give me a ton of weekend ads I’ll never look at just seemed so pointless. Even back when I was in love.

But none of those mattered, because I was in love. Until the internet came out. Back in the 90s I realized I was reading in the paper the exact same stories I read the night before online. AP story after AP story.

But I was in love, so it didn’t matter. I still had local news, editorials, and the comics.

But the local news and editorials departments shrank, to save money. And in all honesty, I only read two or three comics. So I started getting newspapers less and less. And eventually I had to face the fact, I no longer loved newspapers.

But even worse, I didn’t even have any fond memories of newspapers. You don’t have fond memories of more difficult archaic ways. “Oh, I miss the days before microwave ovens when I’d spend 40 minutes warming up a frozen dinner.” No, I don’t.

When something better comes along, I don’t look back fondly, I look back and think, “How did I put up with that crap?” So yes, newspapers were crap. They were the best we had at the time. They didn’t have the immediacy of radio or TV, but they had depth and substance. But that advantage died with the net. And good riddance. You won’t be missed by me.

jayess99 (profile) says:

your article re: demise of newspapers

You start of by mentioning someone named Kushner, no first name, no indication of who he/she is. Your job as a course of information is to actually provide it. As soon as I see something like this, I tune out. I’m not going on a goggle hunt trying to find out what you’re talking about. And this just might be the counter-argument to your subject matter. Most of the newspaper journalists that I read know how to structure their articles, and their editors know how to make them readable.

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