Nostalgia and Newspapers

Aaron Kushner, CEO of Freedom Communications and the architect of a contrarian plan to expand southern California newspapers, began erecting hard paywalls for his digital properties while increasing newsroom and print outlay in the summer of 2012. That strategy imploded earlier this month, with layoffs, buy-outs, furloughs and the merger of two Freedom papers, essentially reversing the previous two years of investment.

There’s no nice way to say this, so I might just as well get to it: Kushner’s plan was always dumb and we should celebrate its demise, not because it failed (never much in doubt) but because it distracted people with the fantasy of an easy out for dealing with the gradual end of profits from print.

The most important fight in journalism today isn’t between short vs. long-form publications, or fast vs. thorough newsrooms, or even incumbents vs. start-ups. The most important fight is between realists and nostalgists. Kushner was running a revival meeting for nostalgists: “The internet’s not such a big deal! Digital readers will pay rather than leave! Investing in print is just plain good business!”

That was some old-time religion right there. It was fun while it lasted, for people who miss the good old days. For people who do not miss the good old days, it was not fun.

A year or so ago, I was a guest lecturer in NYU’s Intro to Journalism class, 200 or so sophomores interested in adding journalism as a second major. (We don’t allow students to major in journalism alone, for the obvious reason.) One of the students had been dispatched to interview me in front of the class, and two or three questions in, she asked “So how do we save print?”

I was speechless for a moment, then exploded, telling her that print was in terminal decline and that everyone in the class needed to understand this if they were thinking of journalism as a major or a profession.

The students were shocked — for many of them, it was the first time anyone had talked to them that way. Even a prompt from me to predict the date of Time magazine’s demise elicited a small gasp. This was a room full of people would would rather lick asphalt than subscribe to a paper publication; what on earth would make them think print was anything other than a wasting asset?

And the answer is “Adults lying to them.” Our students were persuaded to discount their own experience in favor of what the grownups who cover the media industry were saying, and those grownups were saying that strategies like Kushner’s might just work.

People who ought to have known better, like Ryan Chittum at Columbia Journalism Review and Ken Doctor at Nieman, wrote puff pieces for Kushner, because they couldn’t bear to treat him like the snake-oil salesman he is.

Last year, Chittum said:

Kushner, a 40-year-old former greeting-card executive with zero experience in newspapers, is running the most interesting—and important—experiment in journalism right now.

The bit of that sentence before the comma now looks prescient; the bit after somewhat less so. Doctor was even worse, penning little “Maybe this thing still has a chance!” mash notes about Freedom a month before the layoffs hit.

The really terrible thing is that both Chittum and Doctor understood from the beginning what made Kushner’s plan a disaster. They just couldn’t bring themselves to give it to their readers straight. In the same piece where he lauds Kushner, Chittum waits til 2/3rds of the way through to point out that the core of Freedom’s strategy “has been unsuccessful most places it’s been tried”, and buries his most important observation — it will probably fail — at the very end of the piece.

What happened to Chittum and Doctor is endemic to media reporting generally — an industry that prides itself on pitiless public scrutiny of politics and industry has largely lost the will to cover itself with any more skepticism than sports reporters rooting for the home team. (Here’s Doctor, writing during the implosion of Freedom’s strategy: “The enthusiasm of Kushner and [partner] Spitz is hard to dislike.” What’s this, a Pharrell profile?)

When you have an audience mostly made up of nostalgists, there’s not much market demand for unvarnished truth. This kind of boosterism wouldn’t matter so much if it were only reaching weepy journos whose careers started in the Reagan administration. But the toxic runoff from CJR and Nieman’s form of unpaid PR is poisoning the minds of 19-year-olds.

We don’t have much time left to manage the transition away from print. We are statistically closer to the next recession than to the last one, and another year or two of double-digit ad declines will push many papers into 3-day printing schedules, or bankruptcy, or both. If you want to cry in your beer about the good old days, go ahead. Just stay the hell away from the kids while you’re reminiscing; pretending that dumb business models might suddenly start working has crossed over from sentimentality to child abuse.

42 Responses to “Nostalgia and Newspapers”

  1. Link City 6/30/14 | You're gonna need a bigger book Says:

    […] Clay Shirky tackles realism vs nostalgia in publishing today and demands that older folks keep their wishes for the bygone days of print well away from […]

  2. Tales of two newspapers, one rising, one falling | Media Nation Says:

    […] Orange County meltdown was also the subject of an unusually nasty blog post earlier this month by Clay Shirky, who criticized Ryan Chittum of the CJR and Ken Doctor of […]

  3. Book Marketing: It’s About Data, Not Promotion [Smart Set] | AuthReport.com Says:

    […] Nostalgia and Newspapers by Clay Shirky […]

  4. Book Marketing: It's About Data, Not Promotion [Smart Set] | Jane Friedman Says:

    […] Nostalgia and Newspapers by Clay Shirky […]

  5. The Future of Media: Distracted by Our Distractions Says:

    […] a post by Cognitive Surplus author and NYU Assistant Professor Clay Shirky. Shirky’s post, “Nostalgia and Newspapering,” was a response to the apparent collapse of Aaron Kushner’s high profile attempt to […]

  6. 「新聞の未来は紙かデジタルか」その論争がいつの間にか斜め上の展開に | 新聞紙学的 Says:

    […] on vacation, but will respond to @cshirky’s smear soon shirky.com/weblog/2014/06… until then: fuck you, Clay— Ryan Chittum (@ryanchittum) June 18, […]

  7. elizabeth page Says:

    Print may be a wasting asset, but good journalism should not be. A large percentage of what ends up online is derived from print and broadcast created by real journalists – not bloggers. The principles of good journalism – to only give true, accurate information in a timely manner, etc. – have been thrown out with the online bathwater in a frenzy to deliver shock and awe in the hopes of garnering clicks, adds and likes.

  8. 「新聞はいかにして紙からデジタルに移行するのか」が斜め上の論争に | 新聞紙学的 Says:

    […] on vacation, but will respond to @cshirky’s smear soon shirky.com/weblog/2014/06… until then: fuck you, Clay— Ryan Chittum (@ryanchittum) June 18, […]

  9. היי, עיתונות, הבית שלך עולה באש | shaatuk Says:

    […] קצת על הסצנה הנבואית הזו כשקראתי בסוף השבוע את הפוסט הזועף של קליי שירקי, אחד המומחים היותר גדולים לנושאים חברתיים-דיגיטליים. […]

  10. Blog Posts #4 | Says:

    […] its print editions and raising its paywall prices. However, this strategy failed and blogger Clay Shirky assails those in mainstream media for failing to warn aspiring journalists about the eventual demise […]

  11. Re: Nostalgia and Newspapers | Dewayne-Net Archives Says:

    […] Nostalgia and NewspapersBy Clay ShirkyJun 17 2014<http://www.shirky.com/weblog/2014/06/nostalgia-and-newspapering/&gt; […]

  12. patricia Says:

    The internet infrastructure was designed over 20 years ago to replace print. That it is even remotely a novel or focal point at this stage in digital or traditional business is entirely because neither the tech or the print media (newspapers and magazines) understood this and haven’t adapted to it. Retail business is an example of an industry disrupted by the internet that did fine – some companies did not, most did. Not a bad outcome but that’s what happens when an industry disrupts from an innovation and adapts to it the right way as example.

    To say that subscription model doesn’t work in infrastructure/platform business is wrong as well. It’s actually what has been the main monetization model in information distribution successfully across multiple platforms and several disruptive innovations. It’s a truism that isn’t disputable. I’ve studied the monetization of media and content in this context dating back to the invention of the printing press. Ad only models have not fared well traditionally and will not on the internet long range because they’re too erratic and don’t enable media companies to produce a product that provides either value or access to readers, which is the base reason why people consume media/information in the first place. This is also a well factual truism of media business.

    People can watch plenty of NFL football games for free but hundreds of thousands pay $$$$ to subscribe to gain access to more, to this point. Millions of people still buy fashion magazines despite plenty of free fashion content online, because there is an access to the industry that most fashion digital media doesn’t have. Several print newspapers are doing subscription models online that are working, etc. today. Subscription models of media/information has been done successfully online for nearly a decade by a lot of media – just because one might not be familiar with this doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

    The reality is, a lot of ideas fail and this one above was likely poor execution far more than it was the paywall.

    Print media adapts by having confidence in its product, recognizing that its audience and customer is who will pay for it and those who do not are not. It’s not going to happen overnight and in general size and scale in media of all forms is very, very different than a service on any platform, so trying to compare an online media company’s audience with something like Facebook, etc. is like trying to say a print magazine should have the subscriber base of AT&T. It’s two totally different businesses.

    A historic look at media on any platform easily proves that despite having the ability to reach anyone, only some will buy the product. This is a business truism in general but it’s true in distribution platforms, which is in part what the internet infrastructure is.

    By this stage, this stuff should be really well known and understood by everybody. But disruptive innovations and making shifts are hard and even harder in a market where everybody can be an expert just because they have an opinion. This above, in my comment, is based on fact.

  13. Joseph Ratliff Says:

    I seem to remember reading about a similar discussion involving horses, buggies, and cars getting ready to go (gasp) 35 mph!

    The car would NEVER go that fast, it would NEVER replace the horse and buggy etc…

    Well, we still ride horses and buggies today … if you can find one. I suppose they aren’t dead in the extreme sense, but even a motor scooter does 35 mph.

    Point is, right now, digital won’t “ever” do 35 mph … except when it does, and when print is limited to the 2 – 4 papers that have found the nostalgic audience willing to pay and read them.

  14. Chiara Andreola Says:

    I am a young Italian journalist, and I have to admit that thigs here aren’t any better. Last January I was at a conference on website developing for paper editors, and one of the questions was: “So how do we use the internet to bring readers back to paper?”. I was shocked, and asked why they wanted to do so. The answer was: “Because, you know, our readers are mostly elderly people”. I didn’t dare tell them that their readers would most likely be dead in a few years, and so would their newspaper.

  15. Let’s face it, print media is finished | International Journalism Festival Says:

    […] of the media critic Clay Shirky. In an article titled “Nostalgia and Newspapering” published on his blog, Shirky points at reporters (above all Ken Doctor of NiemanLab and Ryan Chittum of the Columbia […]

  16. La carta è morta, facciamocene una ragione | Festival Internazionale del Giornalismo Says:

    […] L’esperimento è fallito qualche settimana fa, provocando il critico dei media Clay Shirky: sul suo blog Shirky addita i reporter che in questi mesi (su tutti Ken Doctor di NiemanLab e Ryan Chittum della […]

  17. Berkman Buzz: June 20, 2014 - Israel Foreign Affairs News Says:

    […] Clay Shirky’s blog post, “Nostalgia and Newspapers”About Clay | […]

  18. Jason B. Says:

    >>>
    And the answer is “Adults lying to them.” Our students were persuaded to discount their own experience in favor of what the grownups who cover the media industry were saying, [...]
    <<<

    I think you're being a bit too harsh… the point of a college education is precisely to learn from the grownups who've gone before.

    Maybe you were intending it to be harsher against the teachers who (IYHO) should have known and seen better. (Granted that critical thinking is a good thing and expected, especially from a journalism major. Still, if the students are expected to be intensely skeptical of everything their teachers say, then why enroll?)

  19. Tim Hoover Says:

    Former-longtime-reporter-recently-turned-communications-guy here. I have for a number of years accepted the fact that print is terminally ill (though the cancer has not metastasized equally in all quarters of the newspaper industry: witness some small community papers that have even reported growth.)

    What I really question, however, is whether there is ANY business model that will work for news. Much of the criticism is basically that newspapers either weren’t prescient enough or are not transitioning to digital quickly enough. But I have not seen a digital model that works yet. Clearly, paywalls don’t seem to be doing the job. But neither does online advertising seem to be working.

    Look, what is stopping folks from RIGHT NOW just opening up digital-only news operations across the country, avoiding the legacy costs of print right from the start? I mean, if you could make a profit from covering regional news as an online-only operation, how come there isn’t a mad rush of investors starting up these operations? Wouldn’t they put their debt-heavy, legacy-invested print competitors out of business quickly?

    Isn’t the obvious conclusion that it just ISN’T profitable to do so?

    I have become increasingly convinced that there is NO profit model for written regional news of any kind, save perhaps hyper-local print operations (neighborhood and small town papers). And that’s a big maybe.

    I have started to believe that news is a public good that will not be provided by the market, and that non-profit operations may be the only way to go. Some of these operations have started already and provide very high-quality news (witness the Texas Tribune.) It’s either that or you have to have a wealthy patron, like Al-Jazeera or Bloomberg News.

    I realize this kind of funding will profit grossly uneven and unequal quality of news coverage across our country, but I don’t see another option at this stage.

    Feel free to tell me why I am wrong.

  20. Brent Stahl Says:

    Very well said, Dan Mitchell. We should “celebrate” the failure in Orange County? Ken Doctor’s deeply reported analyses were “puff pieces”?

    We should be impressed that Clay Shirkey heroically beat down some undergraduates? Shirkey’s aphorisms and slogans are much more than aphorisms and slogans?

    Chittum’s and Doctor’s real sin based on this screed really was that they didn’t toe the Shirkey print-is-dead party line with sufficient zeal. The act is getting old.

    Quick clarification: Chittum and Doctor’s sin was that they missed the Kushner story. Both men had enough information to let their readers in on the obvious outcome — not long in coming, in fact — and both pulled their punches.

    Say what you like about me, but don’t let them off the hook for disingenuous reporting. -c

  21. Is it really digital or die? | The Kicker Says:

    […] week over cutbacks and paywalls at Aaron Kushner’s Register newspapers. There is Clay Shirky’s told-you-so, Ken Doctor’s response and Ryan Chittum’s defense. In case you missed it, or would rather have […]

  22. Don’t Weep For The Past; Plan For The Future | Technology Says:

    […] thinkers on the nature of digital innovation and trends has put forth a good old fashioned rant against people who ought to know better, but are so nostalgiac for print newspapers that they cling to any shred of evidence that there is a business model for print. He highlights […]

  23. Kimmo Says:

    So now what?

    Well, how about https://firstlook.org/theintercept/

  24. Richard Conto Says:

    I haven’t paid for a magazine or newspaper subscription since 2007 – when the local newspaper went under and I became unemployed (for unrelated reasons) and couldn’t afford The Economist. I do receive a free monthly newspaper (The Ann Arbor Observer.) And lately I will buy a weekend edition of one of the Detroit newspapers every month or so when I breakfast at a local diner – but the weekend edition of the Detroit news is barely a news-sheet, being full of too much stuff that I’m not interested in – even to pass the time with while breakfasting alone.

    I am nostalgic about newspapers (“print”.) I made spending money as a kid for several years delivering newspapers (and earning a little extra in tips for good service.) It paid for my electronics hobby at Heathkit and Radioshack.

    But I don’t think journalism is dead. It’s economics have certainly changed – and there’s clearly a need for curation (or editorial oversight) in order to help people find good journalism and good writing. But journalism isn’t going to pay well (if it ever did) – except for a very few who develop a voice and a reputation – and those won’t need institutional curation or editting.

    Beginning and undiscovered journalists are the ones who will need institutional curation. And I have no idea how to make a business plan to support growing those journalists into “respected voices” – except through organizations like NPR or PBS.

  25. Rebecca Caroe Says:

    Well, Clay, this couldn’t have been better timed. Today I’m hosting an UnConference in New Zealand on this very topic.
    The media here are led by Fairfax and NBR and I”ve been pitching both since 2012 and both have told me to go bury my ideas.

    http://creativeagencysecrets.com/native-advertising-all-you-need-to-learn-june-19-2014/

  26. Steve Woodward Says:

    Clay, I have wanted to have your babies ever since you wrote “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” in March 2009. You were right then, and you are right now. The realists and the dream-chasers swapped places in America’s newspaper newsrooms years ago, and apparently the dream-chasers are still in charge in too many places.

    Even the realists, though, lag behind the times, as they redirect their resources to digital-first in a world that has already gone mobile-first. Mark Zuckerberg is already looking beyond mobile-first to virtual-reality-first with Facebook’s $2 billion purchase of Oculus VR. Chances are, newsrooms will be wondering in five years why they didn’t think of 3D news first.

    Now, as in 2009, your answer to what will replace print remains “nothing and everything.” A garden full of journalism experiments are flowering everywhere these days. They are funded by both venture capitalists and crowd-funders, all of whom sense untapped potential in an audience that has never been hungrier for news. Most of these experiments may not look like newspapers, but fortunately for an informed public, they sure look a lot like journalism.

  27. Pat Race Says:

    When those government funded public notices in the classifieds dry up, it’s going to hit print hard in the teeth.

    City and state governments have realized that the paper of record is obsolete and they can provide public notice better, faster and more directly through a nice, fat searchable database.

  28. Zlaumont Says:

    I had no idea that NYU students were forced to pick another major in addition to journalism. I sincerely wish I had been so lucky.

  29. iheartchompsy Says:

    You’re argument is flawed in a fatal way; it presupposes that those who care about journalism have any interest in maintaining a for-profit business model. We do not. Print journalism will not only survive but flourish under non-profit arrangements.

    Your thinking is dangerous and naive. If you’re looking to make huge profits in business, might I suggest PR.

  30. Forget the recession – learning to love audience data is the thing which will define the regional media’s future | David Higgerson Says:

    […] after reading Paul’s excellent piece on HTFP, I read a post by Clay Shirky – arguable the most forward thinking person when it comes to pre… It’s a sharp read, but basically says that the US newspaper industry is still prone being […]

  31. Print still matters, even if some would like to believe it shouldn’t Says:

    […] have to say, I find it funny to be called an apologist for the legacy news industry, as Clay Shirky suggested in an overnight […]

  32. Hank Rodgers Says:

    As an old man, indeed pining for the “good ol’days”, I must say that your article is “right on”, even if sad and hard said. An interesting phenomenon is that, as the greater, younger, increasing, majority moves rapidly to an entirely digital information source (and for most of these they really know no other medium), they are losing something valuable, i.e. their “status” and their power. Short of revolution, the masses have little power. There is still a print medium viability at least for a shrinking, specialized, and increasingly elite number. I still subscribe to the New Yorker and to the New York Review of Books, etc., the former both print and digital. Too, an important question is, given the unwillingness of us to pay even for digital media, how will any good journalism be funded at all? As the digital media continues to become more commercial, shallow and “socially” focused, and the truly important information is missed by or even suppressed for the masses; the power in the country and world, like the economy, will become even more unequally divided. It not so much the medium as the message that should be mourned.

  33. David Haldane Says:

    Finally, the emperor has no clothes! This is the most refreshing bit of writing I’ve seen on this subject since the whole ridiculous thing began. In the waning days of print, let those of us who loved it at least retain some vestige of our dignity. The way we do that is by exhibiting something most of us said we honored as print journalists: the truth.

  34. A few quibbles with Clay Shirky’s ‘Nostalgia and Newspapers’ | Media Nation Says:

    […] Shirky has written a rant. In “Nostalgia and Newspapers,” posted on Tuesday, the New York University professor and author wants us to know that we’re […]

  35. Timothy Rutt Says:

    Here’s my story: I have published a news website for the town of Altadena, California, for seven years. We have won several commendations for our news coverage and the local chamber of commerce named us Business of the Year in 2011. We pride ourselves on covering a town that nobody else is covering, and continue to survive and thrive despite an incursion from Patch. This is a professional news organization and legitimate business, not somebody’s blog.

    A reporter from the Los Angeles Register called me this week, asking if they could use the pictures I took of a local event (they never sent a reporter to cover it while it was going on). I said I would be willing to, but that I would charge them for use. “Oh — we don’t pay for pictures,” she said. “You’re planning to make a profit, so am I,” I said. Needless to say, I didn’t give them my photographs.

    The part about the hard paywall made me laugh. I guess their business plan includes having the readers pay for content, but not paying the people who provide the content.

  36. Fred Goodwin Says:

    So “how do we save print” is the wrong question. I agree, it’s doomed.

    Assuming that the print editions of the NYTimes and WSJ eventually become extinct, I think the real question becomes: is there money to be made in online journalism? And is there enough money to be made to support real, original journalism of the type that the print versions of the NYT and WSJ exemplify?

    ANYBODY can be a HuffPo and simply aggregate news created by other sources. But ten or twenty years from now, who will be the “other sources” actually creating news? I don’t think microbloggers tweeting about black helicopters in Pakistan is the answer, because for every one of those, you have a hundred or more tweeting about Hurricane Sandy flooding the NYSE (which never happened).

    I don’t know the answer, but I DO know that bloggers are not journalists and opinion is not news. I weep for the future of real journalism.

  37. stencil Says:

    Great observation. Spot on.

  38. Steve staloch Says:

    Well said. Perhaps in a past life Kushner was a 1900 village blacksmith who rather than learning how to fix transmissions offered four for the price of two shoeing, or bred horses as a way to increase his customer base. Fact is, content is what brought us to the dance, and unless we find a smart way to valuate quality content, the Darwinian extinction of newspapers will continue unabated.

  39. Dan Froomkin Says:

    I agree that hiring all those people without a decent financial runway amounted to criminal negligence, and I feel terrible for my friends at the Register whose lives have been toyed with like that. I also agree that the digital paywall strategy is doomed for all but a very few, and people who fantasize about it ought to be spanked. But I don’t think you’re right about what went wrong at the Register. The idea was to reinvest in genuinely local news, in print, in a very strategic way (i.e. serving wealthy communities). My understanding is that it wasn’t a paywall strategy; it was a no-digital strategy. And the way that maniac Rob Curley was doing it just might have worked, with a much longer financial tether. So I blame the inept or short-sighted — but either way cruel — financiers. And there is no joy to be had here. None.

  40. Joe Says:

    It’s now apparent that there is no magic bullet, no perfected model, no innovative way to replace what is gone, and so your aggressive confidence is misplaced. We have already entered the era of the “mediaist”, when journalism crosses platforms and tactics. However, newspapers, as weakened as they are, are still in the mix, still part of the news consumption roster, and showing surprising durability in communities that prize them. The smaller ones that have remained close to their audiences on an individual level, which understand the bond between editor and reader, are thriving in numerous markets. Broad-brushing the consumption demands of every citizen ignores the differences between communities and their likes and dislikes. What may be good mobile strategy in one may be poor in another, so the mediaist must respond accordingly.

  41. Love won’t keep news together | Newsroom With A View Says:

    […] then today Steve Buttry posted a link to a piece by Clay Shirky that fairly bursts with exasperation at people who have remained stubbornly print-centric and […]

  42. Dan Mitchell Says:

    It’s true that Kushner never had a chance, but it’s also true that he never had a chance because he put his whole stake on one big bet rather than going at it incrementally, trying different things, introducing more quality at a slow and steady pace, and making a case that his product was worth paying for before asking everybody to pay for it at every turn. Others are doing that, with some early signs of potential success (though few regional dailies are doing it quite right since they’re all owned by corporations.)

    As for your constant refrains of “print” and “nostalgia” — like all digital triumphalists, you sound as out of touch as any clueless, short-sleeved newspaper editor circa 1996. Everybody knows print is on the way out, it’s just a question of how quickly. That’s extremely difficult to estimate. And it’s harder still to manage the transition, especially since online revenues are so hard to come by.

    The only thing I’m “nostalgic” for is complete, fearless, high-quality daily news coverage at mid-sized and larger city and regional news organizations, in whatever format and on whatever platform. I’ve noticed you don’t actually talk about that much, I guess because it’s actually a very difficult industrial-analysis problem, and it’s so much easier to gravedance and sling buzzwords.

    But, yes, print is dying. Got it. So, now what? Before you answer, please try to remember that we’re talking about ongoing professional scrutiny of public institutions here, not just widget sales.

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