Friday, August 22, 2014

It's Unclear

Clay Shirky

Many people have lamented the unpredictability in the media environment occasioned by the arrival of digital devices and networks, but the slow implosion of newspapers has been widely and correctly predicted for some time now. Print ad revenues have fallen 65% in a decade, 2013 saw the lowest ever recorded, and 2014 will be worse [..] The next wave of consolidation is already upon us; big media firms like Tribune and Gannett are abandoning their newspapers (“spinning them off”, in bloodless business parlance.) [..]

Journalists have been infantilized throughout the last decade, kept in a state of relative ignorance about the firms that employ them. A friend tells a story of reporters being asked the paid print circulation of their own publication. Their guesses ranged from 150,000 to 300,000; the actual figure was 35,000 [..]

This cluelessness is not by accident; the people who understand the state of the business often hide that knowledge from the workers. My friend Jay Rosen writes about the media’s “production of innocence” — when covering a contentious issue, they must signal to the readers “We have no idea who’s right.” Among the small pool of journalists reporting on their own industry, there is a related task, the production of ignorance. When the press writes about the current dislocations, they must insist that no one knows what will happen. This pattern shows up whenever the media covers itself. When the Tribune Company recently got rid of their newspapers, the New York Times ran the story under a headline “The Tribune Company’s publishing unit is being spun off, as the future of print remains unclear.”

The future of print remains what? Try to imagine a world where the future of print is unclear: Maybe 25 year olds will start demanding news from yesterday, delivered in an unshareable format once a day. Perhaps advertisers will decide “Click to buy” is for wimps. Mobile phones: could be a fad. After all, anything could happen with print. Hard to tell, really.

Meanwhile, back in the treasurer’s office, have a look at this chart. Do you see anything unclear about the trend line?