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The Death of the Author, uh, I mean Newspaper

March 14, 2009

This is compulsively readable, don’t balk at the length. Print it out if that makes it easier for you; you could enjoy the irony of doing so while you’re at it.

The health of print media has been discussed at some length on this blog before, look over here.

For the attention-span-deficit, a quick summary: news = important, paper = not so.

Over to Clay Shirky:

During the wrenching transition to print, experiments were only revealed in retrospect to be turning points. Aldus Manutius, the Venetian printer and publisher, invented the smaller octavo volume along with italic type. What seemed like a minor change — take a book and shrink it — was in retrospect a key innovation in the democratization of the printed word, as books became cheaper, more portable, and therefore more desirable, expanding the market for all publishers, which heightened the value of literacy still further.

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen. Agreements on all sides that core institutions must be protected are rendered meaningless by the very people doing the agreeing. (Luther and the Church both insisted, for years, that whatever else happened, no one was talking about a schism.) Ancient social bargains, once disrupted, can neither be mended nor quickly replaced, since any such bargain takes decades to solidify.

And so it is today. 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.

There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie.

Read the whole thing here. I recommend you do.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. pattypv permalink
    March 30, 2009 12:15 am

    Unfortunately, not many Americans have cultural curiosity keen enough to care about how the rest of the world views our country. I love The Economist. Every time I travel, I buy one before I board the plane. And to a person, every American tourist sitting next to me asks me, what is that magazine you’re reading?

    I used to live in Seattle, where the P-I just went digital. Now in Kansas City the paper has had staffing cuts upon staffing cuts upon staffing cuts. The safest of all employees are those who are involved in the paper’s online version.

    Having acquired a couple of birds, one being a large parrot, I am not only nervous about having grown up used to holding the paper while drinking coffee in the morning (the only civilized way to become fully awake in my opinion, which takes me a good 45 minutes) but find that now I am growing fearful about what I will use instead of the newspaper I am used to re-using, in the garden as compost, in the fire as kindling, or lining the bird’s cages.

    Woe is me!

    Like

  2. March 15, 2009 3:57 pm

    Strike one for print!

    Like

  3. March 15, 2009 9:55 am

    Thanks to this post, I’m going to go read that article the old-fashioned way: go out and buy a copy. The Economist is always worth it.

    Like

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