Clay Shirky

by peterjukes

Outside a relative handful of financial publications, there is no such thing as the news business. There is only the advertising business. The remarkable thing about the newspapers’ piece of that business isn’t that they could reliably generate profits without accomplishing much in the way of innovation—that could just as easily describe the local car dealership. The remarkable thing is that over the last couple of generations, those profits supported the fractional bit of those enterprises that covered the news.

This subsidy relied on cultural logic peculiar to newspapers; publishers were constrained not just by their investors but by their editors (who expected the paper to be ethical in the short term) and by their families (who expected the paper to be viable over the long term). In return, a publisher could extract some of the value of the paper in prestige and sinecure instead of cash.

This system was never ideal—out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made—and long before Craig Newmark and Arianna Huffington began their reign of terror, Gannett and Scripps were pioneering debt-laden balance sheets, highly paid executives, and short-term profit-chasing. But even in their worst days, newspapers supported the minority of journalists reporting actual news, for the minority of citizens who cared. In return, the people who followed sports or celebrities, or clipped recipes and coupons, got to live in a town where the City Council was marginally less likely to be corrupt.

Writing about the Dallas Cowboys in order to take money from Ford and give it to the guy on the City Desk never made much sense, but at least it worked. Online, though, the economic and technological rationale for bundling weakens—no monopoly over local advertising, no daily allotment of space to fill, no one-size-fits-all delivery system. Newspapers, as a sheaf of unrelated content glued together with ads, aren’t just being threatened with unprofitability, but incoherence.

via Clay Shirky.