I’ve had a lot of discussions with people about what news will look like in a digital age.  Clay Shirky has just written this piece about that topic.  He’s managed to say a few major things:

  • Big newsrooms were a means to an end.  Unfortunately for them, what we actually want is information via journalism, and until recently, not everyone could afford the printing press that was a prerequisite.

“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.”

  • It turns out that a side benefit of being a market with little competition was that advertisers could pay for your more extravagant expenses.

“For a long time, longer than anyone in the newspaper business has been alive in fact, print journalism has been intertwined with these economics. The expense of printing created an environment where Wal-Mart was willing to subsidize the Baghdad bureau. This wasn’t because of any deep link between advertising and reporting, nor was it about any real desire on the part of Wal-Mart to have their marketing budget go to international correspondents. It was just an accident. Advertisers had little choice other than to have their money used that way, since they didn’t really have any other vehicle for display ads.”

  • Putting information into bits on computers has made it easy to extract the bits and redisplay them without DRM or paywalls.  You won’t get around that, and so the model has to change.

“And so it is today. When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.”

While well thought out, it leaves us wondering what comes next.  Competition is good in that it lowers the price to entry.  It’s not good in that no one entity has enough money to run the Baghdad Bureau.  We’ve also heard that local newsrooms are shutting down, since craigslist has killed their income sources.  So if we’re losing local journalism and the high-expense war reporting, where does that leave us?

One question I’d love to have the answer to is where the big expenses lie.  Is it the Baghdad Bureau, or the printing press?  If it is true that the NYT spends so much on printing and delivery that it can afford to send all of its paying subscribers a free kindle, does having a web-only presence allow it to continue paying for the high-quality journalism without paying for print media?  A read-through of their quarterly report might help with that—let me know if you know about this!

[update: put quotes around the parts I quoted from they Shirky piece]