Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.
When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.
Doing a re-read of Clay Shirky’s highly touted “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” the bit here sums up as well as I’ve seen anywhere the issue of the future of journalism.
Most of the debate, or lament, this past year has been about how journalism will suffer without newspapers, that saving newspapers is essential to saving quality journalism. That’s simply not true. And those who have taken it for granted that journalism and journalists are beholden to and will hang onto the shirt-tails of newspaper companies, even to the point of giving up those things that make it journalism, just to help keep newspapers in the business of generating audience for advertisers – well, they are awakening to a new reality.
It is not newspapers shedding journalism. It is journalism shedding newspapers, outgrowing them, or being unwilling anymore to help carry their out-of-control commercialization model. Perhaps newspaper publishers in crisis should be trying to recast their companies into something that is more attractive to journalism and therefore the audience, rather than concentrating all their effort on being better advertising platforms regardless of the journalism, and seeing journalists as part of their problem.
It will be tough for newspaper journalists who wind up having to find some other place to practice the trade. But the upside is that there is no reduction in society’s need to know. It is at the very peak of the hierarchy of needs. It is part of human nature.