The Unthinkable

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Clay Shirky has an analysis of how news organizations did not anticipate the Internet. According to Shirky, some of the groundwork of how news utilized the Internet started with a teenager who loved Dave Barry and started sending it to other fans on a mailing list. This history he gives with the very detailed look at what has happened with news and how it was unexpected.

He calls it “Thinking the Unthinkable.”

He goes on to breakdown with a fascinating breakdown of where we used to be, where we are going and what’s going to be the next step.

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.

He’s right. The industry is not going away. I work in print and this weekend, I’ve been in a comprehensive video journalism seminar.


Because it’s necessary to learn this as it will be a tool for news, not only now, but for how I handle writing and delivering news in the future.

He goes on to write (and this essay is so good you will need to read it twice at this blog) about the rallying cry of journalists, which isn’t much of a business model to follow in the big scheme of things.

The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; “You’re gonna miss us when we’re gone!” has never been much of a business model. So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs? I don’t know. Nobody knows.

Indeed, we don’t. So, the best thing to do is put energy and effort into educating ourselves with all the ready available tools so we can remain relevant.

H/T Laura Creekmore

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  1. driver49 (driver49) on March 15, 2009

    RT @newstechzilla and @tndotcom “New blog post: The Unthinkable


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