Free market Maoism

With his customary wit and wisdom, New York University new media theorist Clay Shirky argues that the print industry is at a revolutionary moment in its 500 year-old history. Newspapers (Seattle Post, SF Chronicle, LA Times etc etc) are dead or dying, he correctly says, but nothing has yet replaced them. The digital news revolution is raging all around us, he observes, but not even the revolutionaries know what's going to replace newspapers. "I don't know," Shirky confesses. "Nobody knows." Nobody, he reminds us, can see into the future; nobody knows what commercially viable digital alternative will eventually come to replace the print newspaper business model:

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to savingnewspapers demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.

To misquote Marx, news businesses make their own histories, but they do not do it quite as they please.

Shirky argues that we are back in tumultuous year of 1500 -- in the midst of what he calls the "wrenching transition" to print. He reminds us that it was Aldus Manitius, an entrepreneurial Venetian printer/publisher -- rather than either Martin Luther or Johannes Gutenberg -- whose "smaller octave volume" really revolutionized the publishing business by making books portable.

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.

So if even the revolutionaries can't predict what will happen, what is the Shirky solution? It's free market Maoism -- stand back and let a thousand digital flowers bloom. Since we have no idea who or what the next Aldus Manitius, we've got to try absolutely everything, he says. The piece is entitled "Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable" -- but its really an argument about hoping for the unhopeable or praying for the unprayable. Thus, Shirky concludes, the Aldus Manitius of tomorrow could be Craig Newmark (Craigslist), Caterina Fake (Flickr), Martin Nisenholtz (NY Times), Emily Bell (Guardian) or that classic Internet entrepreneur -- the unknown 19-year old kid in their dorm room.

Shirky's piece has electrified the American digiterati because, for the first time, somebody has exposed the emperor's nakedness. As he reveals, the current newspaper business is in a death spiral from which nobody, not even America's hero of the Hudson, Captain "Sully" Sullenberger, can save it. By reminding us that "society doesn't need newspapers" and that, instead, "what we need is journalism", Shirky refocuses us on the all-important challenge of how to build viable (profit or non-profit) business models around the accurate reporting and distribution of the news.

But for all the invigorating qualities of Shirky's prose and ideas, I found the piece to be just a tad depressing. The weakness of his skeptical argument is also its great strength. Since we don't know the ending to the news business saga, we can't know for sure if this will have a happy ending. Shirky acknowledges that "many of these models will fail" and that "over time" some of these experiments might "give us the reporting we need". I've bolded and itallicized that "might" because I suspect that Shirky isn't himself completely convinced that a real solution will emerge. And that's a depressing thought because a society without journalism isn't a good society.

And the question that I'd throw back at the laissez-faire Shirky is this: how absolutely should we stand back and trust the free market to come up with a solution to the crisis of the news business? We certainly aren't trusting this unfettered market to solve Wall Street's financial crisis. Nor are most Americans happy with a free market in healthcare that has left millions of people without insurance. So if we can agree that the news business, like healthcare and the financial sector, is too important to fail, then shouldn't the government be taking a more active gardening/watering role in ensuring that at least one or two of today's digital flowers fully bloom in the future?