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“When a 14-year-old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you’ve got a problem.”

This quote from Clay Shirky’s recent brilliant post about newspapers sums up the problem facing publishers today. As the Rocky Mountain News, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and possibly the San Francisco Chronicle are learning, reality has shifted away from newspapers.

Another quote to make your day:

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

Shirky makes some major points every publisher should contemplate today:

  • We are no longer in a scarcity model of publication.
  • The information revolution we’re in has upended expectations, so that “radicals” are really pragmatists, and “pragmatists” are really radical reactionaries. Instead of hiding your radicals away, realize they’ve been right, and put them out in front.
  • News on paper will die. As Shirkey puts it, “When someone demands how we are going to replace newspapers . . . . [t]hey are demanding to be lied to.”
  • Journalism, or some new incarnation of it, will emerge if we shift from “save newspapers” to “save society.”
  • Revolutions often destroy what exists before replacing it. The next innovation arises after the revolution, after the destruction.
  • Innovations that seem small at first can be unexpectedly significant.
  • Begin a lot of small experiments, because you don’t know which of them might be the next big thing for you.

An especially salient part of this brilliant essay is Shirky’s analysis of how printing presses and the scarcity model of publishing created affiliations and conceptual conflations that were accidental yet became synergistic. Those accidental alignments are now finished, and the synergies are decaying.

Shirky’s perspective is impeccable. His post is worth repeated readings. Share it with colleagues. Put it on your door. Learn from it.

Think the unthinkable.

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


2 Thoughts on "Do You Want Lies?"

This is the best kind of article: educational, thought provoking and entertaining at the same time. Thanks for pointing it out, Kent. For scholarly publishers, Shirky’s explanation for the success of Consumer Reports (with no ad revenue) is significant. On the Internet people will pay for the “unimpeachability” of unbiased expert opinion. Those feeling pressure from Web 2.0-driven and other “innovative” Internet business models need to remember that.

the problem has shifted from ‘making something available to the public’ to ‘getting the public to look at *your* thing’. i suspect the two problems have been related since the printing press was first invented; but the first problem has effectively been replaced by the second. i wonder what this will mean for what information survives and spreads, and what information stagnates and then disappears. or perhaps no information will ever disappear again?

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