Nostalgia and Newspapers: Clay Shirky (and an idea of my own)

Clay Shirky makes a very forceful claim that physical newspapers and attempts to save old newspaper business models through paywalls are a lost cause, and we are doing students of journalism a serious disservice if we do not help to prepare them for a world with much less print and much more open access and diversity. As he puts it,

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.”

Of course, there are always exceptions, and Shirky may be a tad overstating things. While the vast majority of wood-based newspapers are on their last legs, it is almost certain that a handful will survive for at least a few decades in some form, and there are still a few benefits to paper. As someone who has almost entirely given up print-based newspapers, I have a hell of a time lighting fires, protecting floors and mopping up spills, for instance (and I have a few other reasons for just occasionally preferring print, for now). The jury is also still out on business models relying on paywalls or, more accurately, the technologies to support such things are in flux and there are some highly motivated people seeking new ways to make a profit from online news, so it would be unwise to declare the game over yet. I have some ideas about that which I present below.

Babies and bathwater

Kushner’s attempts to inject new spirit into local communities via print media are almost certainly misguided, as Shirky claims, but the general principle and intentions behind it are mostly pretty sound. Something is lost when everything is equalized on a single screen. While there are plenty of locally-focused spaces to be found almost everywhere on web and on mobile devices, on a single screen they tend to blend and coincide in ways that may not be uniformly beneficial and that lack the cohesive power of centralized media. There is something socially binding about physical objects like newspapers. Their benefits don’t outweigh the relative disadvantages and risks, but they have something going for them. In a related way, centralized media of all kinds can bind us. As a kid growing up in the UK, my first experience of TV involved only 2 channels, which meant a large number of people were sharing the same experience, and talked about it with one another. This did not mostly lead to brainwashing, at least in the way it was done in the UK, but it provided a catalyst for negotiating meaning and exploring our identities, a centre around which we could co-develop a shared culture. We could equally find things to disagree with as well as to agree with. The same is true of newspapers, especially local ones – they are (or were) objects around which people create and share culture and connection, inhabit shared common ground and make sense of it together. They make it easier to feel we are a part of a shared physical community, with a shared commons. The Internet and diversification of centralized media have diluted that, reducing the things we share with those around us and distributing social attention more broadly and less evenly. Meanwhile, they have amplified and redistributed the common ground in new and not unequivocally good ways, in the form of filter bubbles (we see more and more of what we want to see, that we agree with or that interests us, to the exclusion of everything else, so we increasingly separate into isolated online communities of interest or affinity) and memes (our universally shared objects become the lowest common denominators, like cat pictures and Korean dance videos). Swings and roundabouts – this does lead to a great deal of good in a great many ways that I reckon far outstrip the things we are losing, but that doesn’t change the fact that something worth keeping is lost in the process.

I have a possible solution. It’s a slightly wild idea and I don’t know whether it has already been done, but it seems plausible.

Blending the physical and virtual


With tumbling hardware prices making dedicated e-reading devices almost a throwaway commodity and it becoming the norm for individuals and families to possess multiple devices, a more acceptable approach for newspaper companies, especially those running local presses, might be to sell a subscription hidden in the cost of a simple single-purpose single-news-source-reading device. This might be returned for recycling at the end of its life (when purchasing a new one, say) and/or it might be sold at a loss then topped up with pay-as-you-go cards.  So, rather than firing up an app on a general-purpose device, you would pick up the ‘newspaper’ device itself to read and perhaps interact with or contribute to its news. Branding and maybe sponsored adverts could be physically inscribed on the device itself. It could add value such as instant access to latest news (even when abroad), allowing browsing of links, and enabling interaction with other subscribers. Accessibility options would allow for things like large/different fonts and colour schemes, as well as text-to-speech. Annotation features (perhaps shareable) could be provided. It would not take up the space or resources needed to print newspapers. Its single-purpose nature would mean it could be optimized for speed and ease of use. Perhaps it might even double as an e-reader for other things that might even be sold as a revenue generating stream, though because part of the value of it would be its specialist nature, which is what would differentiate it from other locked-in and more general-purpose ecosystems (iOS, Kindle, Android, etc), this should perhaps not be taken too far. For chains like Freedom, perhaps it could offer access to other local newspapers in the chain too, or local library books, or suchlike. If the model spread, one might imagine you could purchase a physical ‘deviceshelf’ that would act rather like a bookshelf, in which you keep your different devices for different content and media from different publishers. In short, it would have many of the benefits of both the Internet and print technologies, occupying a middle ground between them, with most of the advantages (to publishers and readers) of both.

All of the functionality and access to news or other content would be embedded in the original purchase price or through tokens for add-ons that would be akin to pay-as-you-go phone cards. This is not a typical digital subscription model as such inasmuch as it is not simply rental of a service. Content would be downloaded and persistent, even after the original period has elapsed, and available for archive purposes. You could even purchase a new device every year and keep old ones on your deviceshelf for reference. Another significant difference is that, as long as vendors were sensible about avoiding the tempting but ultimately counter-productive path of linking you to the machine, you could lend the device to someone else, or sell it on (with remaining subscription), just as you might with a physical paper text. You could send one as a gift to a family member living in another town. There would be no need to sign up to anything or give away your personal information – indeed, that would reduce the value of the device for resale. By associating the payment with a device rather than a person, you could neatly sidestep the ugliness of subscriber models and even of visible DRM. The temptation to grab personal information might be high, but publishers would be wise to resist it. There would still be plenty of really useful and mostly anonymous data that could be garnered from device usage without having to do the greedy thing.

Some obstacles

This idea is kind of wasteful (though recycling benefits would be significant) inasmuch as all of the digital content could just as easily fit on a single device with far greater efficiency. It is antithetical to or, at best, complementary to the trend to generalization in which everything fits in one small pocket-sized device. Although it bypasses some of the ugliest issues with explicit DRM, it is some way from the open access model that I would normally be promoting. Having access to content through a single device is a bit of a retrograde step, and may sometimes be inconvenient. E-paper (with its long battery life) would likely be necessary until battery technologies improve, which would limit the range of media it could display to text, graphics and maybe podcasts. Even then, assuming a typical month-long charge life, charging multiple devices on the bookshelf might be a pain. Simple wireless power technologies are widely available, but the cost might be a bit high for now and standards are still emerging. Having said that, benefits to the manufacturers of not requiring any sockets for input or output would be quite high, reducing the chances it might get hacked to some extent (if it breaks, it could simply be exchanged for a new one and recycled) and making it possible to read in the rain or bathtub. There are environmental and human costs in the production of electronics, especially given that many of the cheap ones (in particular) are produced under oppressive and poorly monitored conditions. It would be helpful if standards were developed: as such devices became popular, it would be more than a slight nuisance to have to use different adaptors, have differently sized device shelves, and wildly differing device formats. More significantly, standards would also contribute to ease of recycling – standard parts like cases, screens, batteries and so on would often be re-usable, perhaps across multiple devices from different manufacturers. Some major infrastructure would be needed to handle recycling, distribution, and so on, but it is fairly unlikely that this would be as environmentally unfriendly and expensive as the cost of printing, distributing and recycling newspapers. I am not sure that I trust publishers not to try to harvest personal user information for more targeted advertising, to sell on, etc. It would ultimately be self-defeating for them to do so and would reduce one of the main unique selling points of the idea, but short-term gains might be tempting and history does not make me optimistic about this. I’m similarly distrustful that they would exercise restraint and avoid the easy path of adding more and more features and for-purchase add-ons, even though they would inevitably wind up competing with (and losing against or being sucked into) the likes of Google, Apple, Microsoft and Amazon.

Most of the problems I can foresee in this can be largely overcome, and the benefits might be worth having. It would have very interesting sense-making benefits, would combine the benefits of physical objects with virtual content and, rather than competing head-on with open content, would offer a complementary and profitable approach that would sustain many of the benefits of traditional paper with relatively few of the disadvantages. I assume that most newspapers would still maintain a freely accessible online presence too – they would be foolish not to – so this would not subtract much from what we already have. This is not meant as a replacement for anything but paper’. And, of course, it is not limited to newspapers. Similar fixed-functionality devices might be provided by companies, universities, local councils and authorities, libraries, and organizations, with different customizations related to different needs. This is not a radical departure from existing practices, nor does it demand any major new invention. Indeed, it could all be done with off-the-shelf technologies and a little software customization. It is simply a means to reify social objects and to help organize our lives, of sustaining connection and shared understanding with communities that we live in. It’s a little counter-intuitive and goes against the existing flow, but it could work.

Address of the bookmark:

I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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