The Newspaper Industry and the Arrival of the Glaciers

Ed. Note: Boing Boing's current guestblogger Clay Shirky is the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. He teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU, where he works on the overlap of social and technological networks.

In light of Sam Zell's Tribune newspaper empire filing for bankruptcy today, I was reminded of Ron Rosenbaum's piece beating up on Jeff Jarvis — The Good Life of a New-Media Guru — for being unfair to journalists who "have been caught up in this great upheaval" of the print business model. (The piece is sub-titled "Is Jeff Jarvis gloating too much about the death of print?") That in turn reminded me of something I'd written back in 1995 called Help, the Price of Information Has Fallen, and It Can't Get Up. It's not my best writing, but having just re-read it, there's not a conclusion I would change:

The price of information has not only gone into free fall in the last few years, it is still in free fall now, it will continue to fall long before it hits bottom, and when it does whole categories of currently lucrative businesses will be either transfigured unrecognizably or completely wiped out, and there is nothing anyone can do about it.


Newspapers make an enormous proportion of their revenues on classified ads […] however, this arrangement is something of a kludge, since the things being sold have a much more intricate relationship to geography than newspapers do.

You might drive three miles to buy used baby clothes, thirty for a used car and sixty for rare coins. Thus, in the economically ideal classified ad scheme, all sellers would use one single classified database nationwide, and then buyers would simply limit their searches by area. This would maximize the choice available to the buyers and the cost able to be commanded by the sellers. It would also destroy a huge source of newspapers revenue.

This is happening now.

I don't post this because I think I had some unique vision back then. In fact, I'd only arrived on the net in '93, a complete newbie, and most of my opinions about newspapers came from talking with Gordy Thompson of the NY Times and Brad Templeton of Clarinet. Instead, what struck me, re-reading my younger self, was this: a dozen years ago, a kid who'd only just had his brains blown via TCP/IP nevertheless understood that the newspaper business was screwed, not because this was a sophisticated conclusion, but because it was obvious.

Google, eBay, craigslist, none of those things existed when I wrote that piece; I was extrapolating from Lycos and it was still apparent what was going to happen. It didn't take much vision to figure out that unlimited perfect copyability, with global reach and at zero marginal cost, was slowly transforming the printing press into a latter-day steam engine.

And once that became obvious, we said so, over and over again, all the time. We said it in public, we said it in private. We said it when newspapers hired us as designers, we said it when we were brought in as consultants, we said it for free. We were some tiresome motherfuckers with all our talk about the end of news on paper. And you know what? The people who made their living from printing the news listened, and then decided not to believe us.

So I'm calling bullshit on the Rosenbaum thesis, because no one has been "caught up in this great upheaval." Caught up? That makes it sound like a tornado. This change has been more like seeing oncoming glaciers ten miles off, and then deciding not to move.

By the turn of the century, anyone who didn't understand that the business model for newspapers was a wasting asset was caught up in nothing other than willful ignorance, so secure in their faith in the permanence of their business that they assumed that those glaciers would politely swerve at the last minute, which minute is looking increasingly like now.

Tribune Co. Files for Bankrupcty Protection | The Good Life of a New-Media Guru | Help, the Price of Information Has Fallen, and It Can't Get Up