Notes On Clay Shirky on the News, Part the Second

The power of Clay’s essay derives in part, I think, from its cumulative power–he’s been saying these things for a while, and others have too, but Shirky took the trouble to outline them manifesto-like. So, to amplify his piece a little, I’m going to quote a few of them below, to give you a sense of the breadth of the emergent consensus, ad I’ll focus on the one of his concepts that is getting the most repetition, at the moment at least: “Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism.”

I’m first reminded of Simon Doumenco’s discussion of news-qua-cloud as opposed to news-the-thing in AdAge only last week in responses to an article discussing the Hearst Corporation’s involvement in an eInk r-based reader, Plastic Logic.

The Hearst e-reader project suggests that media executives just can’t stop clinging to the concept of news as a thing–news as a discrete product that can and should be purchased like milk or cereal or any other package good. It’s amazing that in 2009, that idea still has such a grip. Arguably a death grip…Once upon a time, it made sense for media executives to behave and think as if they were Procter & Gamble executives–package jockeys…: If only we could come up with a snazzier, hipper, more futuristic container for our product

This actually puts the news people a step ahead of the book industry, of course–we’ve hardly done anything to even improve the container of the past 30 years. Most publishers are trying to reduce the number of trim sizes they print in, lower the weight of the paper, and so forth. (I was a big offender in that regard too, I’ll confess…). That said, it is absolutely clear that the book is a snapshot of a process and the present container used to house it, also known as a book, just happens to be a successful technology. In other words, these things are not fixed. Never were, in fact.

I’m then reminded of Bob Stein, yet another person exploring this process alongside Shirky, “a book is a place”. (Or, to quote myself “books are…the richest kind of social glue”…) “A book,” continues Stein, “obscures the social relations that underlie a book. They are much more a social experience than we realize.” Here Stein is again playing with the little bit of linguistic sleight-of-hand, the book being both container and contained, the former historically contingent, the latter as culturally eternal as any cultural form. The story. And stories are told. And from the beginning of time they were told, sometimes one person to another, something in small groups, or large ones. Told and retold. Stories that organized societies. Thus, highly highly social. And Shirky and Stein and Dumenco and me, we’re going to keep telling that story too.

For, to again quote Shirky: “‘You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!’ has never been much of a business model.”