Never let it be said that I don’t appreciate a good cage match.
That said, this time the melodrama inside the cage is distracting us from an opportunity for for a real and important discussion about the the future of local media.
As background, last week’s battle royale kicked off on Tuesday (6/17) with a post by Cognitive Surplus author and NYU Assistant Professor Clay Shirky. Shirky’s post, “Nostalgia and Newspapering,” was a response to the apparent collapse of Aaron Kushner’s high profile attempt to revitalize the business of newspapers, starting with The Orange County Register. Getting right to the point, Shirky said:
There’s no nice way to say this, so I might just as well get to it: Kushner’s plan was always dumb and we should celebrate its demise, not because it failed (never much in doubt) but because it distracted people with the fantasy of an easy out for dealing with the gradual end of profits from print.”
The highest profile elements of Kushner’s plan were a hard paywall around all digital content ($1 per day to read any stories on their site) and a massive investment in improving the print version of the newspaper, driven by a big increase in headcount for the newsroom.
If you still have your heart set on dialing back the clock and going back to the good old (pre-disruption) days of newspaper, it’s a compelling story: Forget what these fancy digital people are telling you, the solution to digital is to treat it like a newspaper! And the solution to print is to just go back to the bigger newsrooms we used to have!
I was at Kushner’s presentation at the NAA mediaXchange in April, 2013. (Titled, apparently without intentional irony, “The Future of Change.”) I’m pretty upfront with people I meet at those conferences. I’m a paywall skeptic, especially for local news organizations that can’t afford to invest in content at the level of The New York Times, because paywalls (especially hard ones) fight against the network effect that is the strength of digital, because they force you to compete for audience against free, and the because the real world results of most paywalls for local media companies is that the online audience ages and ends up mirroring the already aged print audience. And while I still love reading the morning paper, I have no delusions about newspapers miraculously reversing their steep trend downward. I wasn’t suprised by the gushing response the audience gave Kushner, although I did find it disappointing (as I did the “take that, smart guy” comments I got from people I had just met).
As Shirky put it:
Kushner was running a revival meeting for nostalgists: “The internet’s not such a big deal! Digital readers will pay rather than leave! Investing in print is just plain good business!”
Shirky went on to say that right now, in the newspaper industry “the most important fight is between realists and nostalgists.”
That’s a powerful statement. The kind of provocative statement that can spur real discussion that might actually achieve something. Separating what’s real and what is just wishful nostalgia is critical if we’re to have any hope of figuring out new business models that can support local journalism.
Only that’s not what we all ended up talking about.
In his post, Shirky went on to call out specific journalists and bloggers who he believed knew that Kushner’s plan was terrible but who drank the Kushner Kool Aid. By doing so, argued Shirky, they distracted news organizations from searching for real answers by promoting a fantasy that they desperately wanted to hear.
Specifically, he called out Ken Doctor, who writes on media industry economics for Nieman Journalism Lab, and Ryan Chittum, who writes for Columbia Journalism Review, as print apologists.
The backlash was predictable, as was the excitement of those in media who followed the back and forth like it was the U.S. vs. Portugal World Cup game.
Doctor can defend himself better than I can, and his response is here: “Print still matters even if some would like to believe it shouldn’t.”
In a long, thorough post, Doctor essentially characterized Shirky’s piece as a drunken or delirious rant, complete with backhanded complement:
Shirky isn’t the only one to point out that I’d covered the Kushner adventure more than most. He’s just the only one to take it personally and to have a public allergic reaction. I hope he recovers quickly; his sober voice is a useful one to us all.”
To be fair, Doctor was one of the first writers to talk about Kushner’s impending implosion, which he did earlier this month here.
Chittum’s response was more economical.
— Ryan Chittum (@ryanchittum) June 18, 2014
Then Shirky replied to Chittum. Chittum responded back. Other bloggers chimed in along the way here (“A few quibbles with Clay Shirky’s latest on nostalgia and newspapers”) and here (“Professors say the dumbest things about journalism”) and here (“Register stumbles lead to strong words between media thinkers”) and elsewhere. And the Twitterverse erupted with gleeful color commentary and play-by-play as the jabs flew back and forth. In the world of people who think and write about the future of journalism and the media, it was the social media equivalent of somebody hitting someone else over the head with a chair.
And the problem is … none of it matters. It’s not that the responses didn’t contain interesting observations. It’s that, instead of a meaningful discussion about what is real and what is wishful nostalgia, we ended up with a bunch of people, all of whom write about the future of journalism and media, arguing about which media thinker is really a realist and who is only a pretend realist.
While an F-bomb tweet and a “Quien es mas macho?” debate among future-of-media bloggers and academics can be entertaining, let’s go back to the original intent of Shirky’s post.
Shirky was upset that promoting the fantasy of Kushner’s Orange County Register plan was a distraction to local media leaders. That it kept them from searching for real answers.
The great irony? The fracas resulting from his post became the topic of discussion, not the content of the post. We got sucked up, as often happens in the media, in debating the “inside baseball” elements instead of the real topic. In pointing out that we were distracted by a fantasy, we became distracted by a fracas.