Rock, Paper, Internet

The public debate whether “print is dead” or only sick has been going on for years and will continue to do so, just as the discussion about the aliveness of “The King”. That there is something wrong with the newspaper industry is undeniable. Why “there’s something rotten” is a mystery that some have tried to reveal, while others chose to look away.

With the recent shutdown of the Seattle Post Intelligencer in March 2009, the crisis of the newspaper business has dramatically increased in visibility for Seattlelites.

Under Wrong Management

In early 2008 already, Seattle writer Jon Talton has given a number of reasons why newspapers have become unattractive to their customers.

Rather than a change in society and general cosumer behavior, he has pointed his finger at the industry itself. With the creation of monopolies and consolidations, the papers had become disconnected from their readers, he argues.

Additionally, it “left them at mercy” of the Wall Street, which resulted in cutbacks on journalism, the “intellectual capital” of the papers. Ultimately, this resulted in a decrease of quality journalism and the raising of a generation of head-nodding writing monkeys.

For the Good of Society

Clay Shirky puts a stronger emphasis on the outside influence on newspapers in the same month that the PI printed its last edition. For him, the internet has “broken” the “old system”.

Just as “paper beats rock” in 1500, when Gutenberg invented the printing press and thus enabled the gnawing and eventual destruction of the rocks that formed people’s beliefs, “internet beats paper” about 500 years later.

Shirky is quite clear about his position when he states: “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism”. He regards newspapers as a mere institution that had to be overcome at some point, although it is not quite clear what will replace them and how journalism – now untied from the “bonds” of paper – will continue to live on.

Down to Business

Seattle Journalist Kathy Gill focuses on a fundamental problem that all three writers commonly identify: The structural setup of local daily newspapers relies on the income from advertisements rather than customers paying for content.

With the availbility of smaller units of information rather than information “bundles” as in newspapers, the close tie between content and advertisement dissolved.

The Digital Road Map

None of the three journalists can predict the future, but all of them appear to be writing blog obituaries and digital mission statements rather than outdated paper “get well” cards to the news paper industry. It remains to be seen what new business model will come to rule the field of journalism in the future or if one single model can even attempt to replace the old.

Assuming paper – the medium that allowed different arguments to clash –  beat the rock of dogma and blind belief back in the days and thus created what we believe to be a democratic struggle of ideas. Assuming also that today internet beats paper and thus enhances the multiplicity of voices in this democratic proccess. I hope that this new element in the equasion is also strong enough to resist being beaten by the rock in turn.

In a world of such a multiplicity of opinions where people tend to opt for easy solutions without questioning them, good journalism is more important than ever before.  It requires well-trained journalists who have the guts to dissent from the mainstream and help to form public opinion by well-founded research and strong arguments to prevent the rule of doctrine and maintain a democratic society.

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