Clay Shirky: “We’re collectively living through 1500”

The year 1500 witnessed an information revolution, when Caxton’s printing press really started to impact society in ways that were difficult to predict. Clay Shirky likens that era to now in his latest article Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, which is well worth your time.

It’s a great conversation starter, especially if you’re in the news business or indeed any form of “content” business.

After reading such an insightful person put the following, your response could be one of fear or excitement. It may depend on what business you’re in.

So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?

I don’t know. Nobody knows. We’re collectively living through 1500, when it’s easier to see what’s broken than what will replace it. The internet turns 40 this fall. Access by the general public is less than half that age. Web use, as a normal part of life for a majority of the developed world, is less than half that age. We just got here. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.

If you have a spare weekend you could also:

– Watch a Shirky speech on video

– Plough through some analysis on pages that link to the Shirky piece

– Peek into Shirky’s research process via his Delicious bookmarks

    Have fun. You never know, you might find a radical new model for a news service.

    New York Times – Online Subscription “Heresy”?

    Silicon Alley Insider has a provocative piece about New York Times exploring a paid subscriptions scheme for its online service.

    I’ll keep this brief. I just want to stoke up some of the issues around this.

    These are the potential problems, as I see them, with this scheme:

    • Wall Street Journal and Financial Times have already pursued paid subscription models. But their distinctive topic area is finance. As the article points out “those papers count on business readers who just charge their company for access.” Then in reference to the New York Times itself, “the general reader might not pull out the credit card for access to news that will remain available for free elsewhere”.
    • It could be argued that any niche platform might have a chance of charging for content. But something as broad as the New York Times? The way people read news is different now. The paper newspaper format aggregates news about a range of subjects, but that’s partly a result of the economics of printing. A reader’s loyalty to a trusted brand for an all-encompassing news service is somewhat diminished now. Consider the physical paper newspapers you NEVER buy – but you can very easily visit an individual article, if it’s forwarded to you or you find it in a search. Who’s done this? I definitely have. A fully paid service doesn’t take advantage of this.
    • For journalism these – to use the words of the Chinese – are “interesting times”. The past success of the New York Times is no guarantee of future success when that brand is extended into a paid service. The past loyalty of readers is not a guarantee of future loyalty. Really, the clearest viewpoint from which to start when designing a successful business for online news would be no legacy, no tradition and no baggage. In other words, this is not be a bold business decision but a move of desperation – it’s about a plan to “save the New York Times”. The correct plan should be “to launch a profitable online platform that publishes high quality news and articles”. New York Times has many years of journalistic experience coming up with the content, but on a business level they don’t have the luxury of taking time over this. Elsewhere, entrepreneur Marc Andreessen thinks they should shut down the costly print edition altogether.
    • “Information wants to be free” from the article is a quote from Stewart Brand which is right in the sense that market forces will drive the price of a piece of information towards zero. This is economics. Given two identical options, which are you going to pick – the free version or the version where you have to pay? But whether this applies to daily news as well as encyclopaedic and other information is another question. Readers also value other things that New York Times is able to provide (such as convenience, trustworthiness and high quality of journalism).

    As ever, comments are open.