Come the revolution, we don’t know WTF is going to happen

As we continue to debate and wonder what future there is, if any, at the CBC, there is a much more important post than Robert Fulford’s emeritus musing. Posted on his blog March 13 by Clay Shirky, an adjunct professor in NYU’s graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program and net expert since the 1990s, it “went viral” within days. Although Shirky is writing about newspapers, everything he says applies directly to the CBC. His basic thesis, we’re all caught up in the maelstrom of a media revolution, and no one knows what the fuck is going to happen next.

As Shirky says:

The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place.

You can find the complete post here. Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable

This excerpt sounds just like the CBC:

Revolutions create a curious inversion of perception. In ordinary times, people who do no more than describe the world around them are seen as pragmatists, while those who imagine fabulous alternative futures are viewed as radicals. The last couple of decades haven’t been ordinary, however. Inside the papers, the pragmatists were the ones simply looking out the window and noticing that the real world was increasingly resembling the unthinkable scenario. These people were treated as if they were barking mad. Meanwhile the people spinning visions of popular walled gardens and enthusiastic micropayment adoption, visions unsupported by reality, were regarded not as charlatans but saviors.

When reality is labeled unthinkable, it creates a kind of sickness in an industry. Leadership becomes faith-based, while employees who have the temerity to suggest that what seems to be happening is in fact happening are herded into Innovation Departments, where they can be ignored en masse. This shunting aside of the realists in favor of the fabulists has different effects on different industries at different times. One of the effects on the newspapers is that many of their most passionate defenders are unable, even now, to plan for a world in which the industry they knew is visibly going away.


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, they expanded the market for all publishers, heightening 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

A couple of comments from J. Frank

Shirky says:

The problem newspapers face isn’t that they didn’t see the internet coming. They not only saw it miles off, they figured out early on that they needed a plan to deal with it, and during the early 90s they came up with not just one plan but several.

That’s right, most newspapers didn’t see the Internet coming. The employees of CBC did, creating their own program websites before management knew what was happening. Then the mid-90s version of the CBC did get in early and the Corp was there years before CTV, ABC, CBS, Global and the majority of Canadian newspapers.

Then the top levels at CBC decided it had to “manage” the web. So it hired outsiders and appointed them as senior managers who, rather than listening to the employees who knew what they were doing, those senior managers went to conferences and meetings where they talked to all those clueless media managers from the newspapers and late comers, who didn’t know html from a haddock, and came up with policies which crippled CBC online for years, making it just the same as everyone else.

We have to heed Shirky’s warning:

Round and round this goes, with the people committed to saving newspapers demanding to know “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” To which the answer is: Nothing. Nothing will work. There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke.

And (with my emphasis)

Journalism has always been subsidized. Sometimes it’s been Wal-Mart and the kid with the bike. Sometimes it’s been Richard Mellon Scaife. Increasingly, it’s you and me, donating our time. The list of models that are obviously working today, like Consumer Reports and NPR, like ProPublica and WikiLeaks, can’t be expanded to cover any general case, but then nothing is going to cover the general case.

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.

For years, from the 1960s to the election of Brian Mulroney, both the CBC and CTV were innovative organizations, trying things that no one else would. (Global, which the Conservatives are going to bail out, of course, was sitting on its ass taking profitable feeds from LA).

In this crisis, dynamic, well-funded and properly managed public broadcasting could be one way of strengthening journalism. Unfortunately, in this country, we have currently have a federal government who is bleeding the CBC to death (as well as pure science and the arts and the environment) in the name of libertarianism.

So if there is an innovation that changes journalism, the chances that it will happen again in this country are slim to none. Or if it does come in this country, you can be sure that the Harper government wouldn’t want to fund it, and the Americans, or the Chinese or Indians or the British will.

What does that mean to us? We are living in the age of uncertainty. We are on ship that has lost its foremast, and the main mast is barely holding against the hurricane force winds. The captain can’t navigate. There’s an iceberg ahead. Are there enough lifeboats? And if we get in the lifeboats, land and a safe harbour is far far away.

It is interesting to note that Shirky is basing some of his ideas on new interest in Gutenberg.
And the Star had its own take on Gutenberg at this link.

1 comment

  1. Allan
    Posted March 22, 2009 at 4:12 pm | # | Reply to this masterpiece

    After fixing the headline (seems to happen to all of us), JFW, what is it that annoys you about the CBC online effort, besides not running it? and if you did, how would make sure that you weren’t

    “making it just the same as everyone else.”

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