We could all see it coming, we just never expected it to come this quickly. Ink and paper news dailies are disappearing at an alarming rate, and the scramble to come up with the "what's next" has taken on a greater urgency for those of us who care about newspapers, journalism and democracy.
Clay Shirky, who is an expert on the economic effect of the web, decentralized technologies and is an adjunct professor at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program, writes that a model will likely emerge, but in our chaotic grasping for answers, and our immersion in the decline of the legacy press, we are simply not able to see what's next yet.
His remarkably cogent argument reaches back to the 16th century just after Gutenberg unleashed the printing press on an unprepared society. The reverberations were stunning, but it took decades before the new model of information, power, social structure and community emerged.
Shirky doesn't believe that any of the models being touted today are realistic, and that the new model will be something totally unpredictable. He points to Craigslist that began as something minor and turned into "a critical piece of the infrastructure."
Shirky doesn't pretend to have the answers. "Nothing will work, but everything might," he writes.
Like many other, Shirky is worried that journalism will be tossed out with the news.
Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.
When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work.