American newspapers are history

America’s digerati has been abuzz all this week with the gloomy words of a couple of the country’s most lucid Internet prophets. First came a speech last Friday by the author Steven Johnson at the South By Southwest Interactive Festival in Austin TX, then came an essay on Saturday by New York University digital media scholar Clay Shirky. Their words addressed the future of digital news; and both men delivered the bleakest of news to print journalists already under siege from the economic crisis afflicting almost all American newspapers.

Their media may have been different, but their shocking messages were the same: newspapers are history, the two visionaries agreed. The traditional business is no longer viable, Shirky and Johnson both announced; newspapers are being replaced by futuristic digital news networks that will barely resemble their archaic print ancestors.

Johnson, the author of the sparklingly provocative Everything Bad is Good for You, a polemic in defense of the educational value of video gaming, entitled his speech “Old Growth Media and the Future of News”. But most of Johnson’s media growth lay ten years hence – a couple of centuries in Internet time. In the short term, his prognosis was dire. Things are “ugly” right now, he acknowledged, and “they are going to get uglier”. Johnson, who is also a member of the founding team at the neighborhood news site, not only predicted that “great journalists and editors” will lose their jobs”, but also that entire American cities will lose their papers.

But compared to Clay Shirky, Johnson was positively sunny is in his outlook. Shirky’s self-published online essay, entitled  “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable”, tore into the convenient lies to which many “fabulist” newspaper executives continue to cling. “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism,” he wrote, with delicious venom.  The old newspaper business model of paid content can’t be neatly and painlessly exported into new media, he explained. “Nothing, nothing will work”, Shirky argued, in a sickly newspaper culture that has become “faith-based”; there is “no general model” that will allow newspapers to transform themselves from print businesses into digital enterprises.

Like Steven Johnson, Clay Shirky is hopeful that eventually new digital models will come to replace the broken print newspaper business. But his future is even more science fictional than Johnson’s. “For the next few decades”, Shirky wrote, various new publishing businesses – represented by innovative models ranging from the non-profit ProPublica and WikiLeaks to Consumer Reports -- will seek to reinvent a viable journalism. “Many of these models will fail,” he predicted. And even in the distant long term, Shirky explained, nothing is guaranteed, there is no certainty of success.

Meanwhile, the real world continues to validate the accuracy of their depressing analysis.  Last week, for example, Hearst Corporation announced the closure of Seattle’s oldest newspaper, the Post-Intelligencer. And there were more staff cuts at a number of other newspapers including the San Diego Union-Tribune. Meanwhile Time Magazine identified the ten most doomed regional papers, a chilling list which included such historically august publications as the Boston Globe and the San Francisco Chronicle.

As Shirky wrote, “this what real revolutions are like.” They are invariably bloody and chaotic events in which “the old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.” Non American journalists, publishers and editors should take note; like the unsentimental Clay Shirky and Steven Johnson, they must dare to think the unthinkable and imagine the unimaginable.