The Shirky analysis and change in the media

The intensity of the discussion about what is and what will happen to the media industry is becoming more pronounced by the day. Already this week, in the short time I allow myself to surf the net and catch up before I get on with the day’s tasks, I’ve come across some stimulating exchanges and articles which could keep me bouncing from blog to message board to site and back for at least a week, gathering information and contributing comment. It’s a stark indication of the nature of the internet age that I could spend the whole day doing this and still not scratch the surface. With instant access to more information than ever before, the worry that you’re missing something increases. What follows is, inevitably, simply my take on just a few points that have arisen.

The big talking point is Clay Shirky’s essay Newspapers and thinking the unthinkable. Shirky describes himself as someone who writes about “Systems where vested interests lose out to innovation,” and commentates extensively on communication in the digital age. His article makes some pertinent observations and sets out many of the issues facing the newspaper industry, and includes an interesting examination of how, during any time of great change 

“old stuff gets broken faster than new stuff can be put in place”. 

Some of the comment sparked by his piece seems to suggest Shirky is proposing a way forward, but to me it reads like a very good round-up of the issues facing newspapers and news media rather than a manifesto for change. And from what I’ve read of Shirky, he’s not one for manifestos. There’s some witty and sharp observation in his comment that 

“employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse.”

And he observes perceptively that

“The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread.”

But I think it’s over-dramatic to say that

“When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.” 

And when he says

“It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem”

it doesn’t seem to take into account the fact that the publishing industry is not just about newspapers, or in fact about putting information in a readable format. Publications can inform, entertain, provide cachet or just be a pleasurable frippery. They come in many forms, newspapers, magazines, books, websites… and each one requires not just production but distribution. It’s all very well producing something, but how does an audience find it? Examination of the distribution side or of the growing power of SEO reveals that the vested interests Shirky refers to may not be losing out quite as much as some would like to think.

It’s over 20 years since Eddie Shah said that new technology meant “anyone could start a newspaper”. The reality is that only one UK newspaper, The Independent, has launched that still remains open – and its owner is a multimillionaire businessman. It would, of course, be foolish to deny a growing democratisation of the media, but at the top the usual suspects are still very much in control.

I think it’s always interesting to look at how established forces take on what they require of the new in order to control change, even if this means missing out on the full benefits of technological developments. The trouble with vested interests is that they are not interested in what can be achieved, only what they can achieve. So for all the opportunity offered by technology and the digital age, we still see headlines like Expect to work for free for two years, magazine editor tells students.

Speaking at a Women in Journalism event, Maureen Rice, editor of Psychologies magazine, said that working for free for up to two years was

“very much the right way to get a first job, especially in magazines”.

Now, if there is anyone who can afford to work for two years, that’s 24 pay packets, for nothing – especially in London – I’d suggest that they may not actually need to work at all. It’s always been the case that new entrants to the trade need to be prepared to do a little work on spec, and to accept a lower wage while training. But wanting staff to work for nothing is a very old ambition of bad employers and Maureen Rice, a very good editor of a very successful magazine, should know better. I’m hoping something was lost in the report, as Maureen did say that internships are

“worth the investment for us”,

which suggests that there are properly financed and organised schemes for new journalists to be had at her magazine. If not, it’s just another example of how the media world sometimes exists in a different universe. If you were opening a shop, you wouldn’t expect suppliers to provide stock for free, after all. But maybe the Psycholgies office is very different, as Maureen also says 

“Interns should act as though they are just as excited to make someone a cup of tea as they are to write a feature.”

I’m not underestimating the importance of making tea in an office, in fact it’s something I expected everyone to do and made sure I did myself when I used to run subs’ departments, but I would have been worried if my staff got as much of a kick out of making a cuppa as they did out of editing copy.  

That last paragraph may be used as further evidence that subs serve no useful purpose – they have time to make tea! – by the Roy Greenslades of this world, but the issue of how functions break down across a publication came up again with news that Seattle P-I is to close its print edition and publish online only. In that article is this quote:

“We don’t have reporters, editors or producers—everyone will do and be everything. Everyone will write, edit, take photos and shoot video, produce multimedia and curate the home page. That’ll be a training challenge for everyone, but we’re all up for the challenge and totally ready to pick up all these skills.”

This is an experiment that will be closely watched, but I’m not convinced that everyone doing everything won’t lead to a general reduction in quality. I’ve argued before that the industry is moving towards a jack-of-all-trades approach because of short-term cost considerations. There’s nothing wrong with everyone having some experience in everything, because this helps staff to understand and appreciate how the entire product works. But we have to find a way to continue specialisation if we are to take full advantage of the technology now available. And there also needs to be a realisation that staff are human beings with different abilities, not machines who can be made to do anything through the insertion of the right programme. 

It all comes down to quality again, to focussing more on what we produce than the way we produce. And, as David Hepworth argues in his article for InPublishing, we need to reconnect with people who read.

Finally, I really enjoyed reading DigiDave’s blog entry about online branding. A much needed direct and witty summation of something often over-complicated, and very much a current issue.

#Training #mediarevolution #SEO #distribution #newspapers #multimedia #onlinebranding #ClayShirky

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