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Too Big to Fail? Think Again.
Alex Steffen, 14 Mar 09
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Clay Shirky, makes an excellent point about the collapse of newspapers, which could just as easily apply to a host of other North American industries that are so unwilling to even consider the possibility that times have changed that they've entered a period of surreality:

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.

A whole host of North American industries have allowed fabulists to set their agendas for resisting reform: sprawl developers, auto manufacturers, coal-dependent power companies and cattle feed lots.

What they refuse to see is that a business model is not a mandate. People still want good stories and quality information today, just as they will want housing, mobility, energy and food tomorrow: the newspaper is still a doomed model.

The curious thing about the various plans hatched in the ’90s is that they were, at base, all the same plan: “Here’s how we’re going to preserve the old forms of organization in a world of cheap perfect copies!” The details differed, but the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes (save the unthinkable one) was that the organizational form of the newspaper, as a general-purpose vehicle for publishing a variety of news and opinion, was basically sound, and only needed a digital facelift.

You could very easily rewrite the last sentence to read "the core assumption behind all imagined outcomes (save the unthinkable one) was that the organizational model of American industry, as a general-purpose vehicle for delivering prosperity, was basically sound, and only needed a sustainability facelift" and it would ring just as true.

The single biggest delusion in North America today is that the interconnected planetary problems bearing down on us can be faced with slight alterations to the current order; that a model of delivery prosperity based on suburbs and big cars and consumerism and profligate energy use and the careless spewing of pollution in all directions can be fixed through the swapping out of some of its constituent parts for slightly greener parts -- that green-built McMansions and hybrid cars and compact fluorescent light bulbs will prop the model up indefinitely. They won't, because we are in a situation where incremental reform has already been made meaningless by a revolution in context, and industry CEOs who demand incredulously to know how we're going to run an economy if car-dependent, high-consumption suburban lifestyles go away would do well to understand what Clay is saying here:

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.

We're moving more and more quickly into a period of rapid transformation. We could be embracing that change and setting out to build the next smart, bright green economy. Instead, we allow ourselves to be deceived into thinking that the current models are "too big to fail." They're not, and the longer we listen, the more epic the failure will be.

Photo credit: flickr/jmtimages, Creative Commons license.

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we allow ourselves to be deceived into thinking that the current models are "too big to fail."

or that if they can fail, it will be along the lines of how they're already failing, through globalization or tech evolution or what have you. current debate about the post-recovery north american job situation could have been staged 30 years ago.…

Posted by: hapa on 16 Mar 09

One of the best things you've written in a long time, Alex. Keep up the good work.

Posted by: David Foley on 18 Mar 09

Seems like there's a huge sincerity problem. And lack of ability to see the challenge as being for ourselves rather than someone else. People demand "to know how we are going to replace" (newspapers, auto industry, CAFOs, etc.) rather than asking themselves "how are we going to replace" in a self-challenging manner. The organizations (gov/ngo/corp) that bother to ask this of themselves are the ones who will come out leading the way forward.

Posted by: Stephen Fuqua on 20 Mar 09

While it may be the case that newspapers will be totally gone, that will be to the detriment of voting citizens and freedom in general. Websites don't have the income to support the many reporters who not only gather the news but the websites don't have the income to support investigative reporters who can spend months rooting out sophisticated and well-hidden corruption among elected officials and major corporations. We will be at the mercy of the politicians who sell themselves to the highest bidder, corporations who hide their pollution and astronomical executive perks that simply are theft from stockholders, pharmaceutical companies that hide negative test results leading to many deaths, etc. No one else but the press has (or probably will have) the resources to tackle the corruption of the moneyed interests. We'll all be uninformed, voting and choosing on the basis of sound bites and advertisements. I'm not looking forward to the death of democracy.

Posted by: Barney Sperlin on 22 Mar 09

Barney - I hear you, and have the same worries. But I'm guessing that, like many things, we'll have a painful transition but will eventually find some system that works out to replace the dying one. Any ideas about how serious investigative journalism can be kept alive in a (largely?) post-newspaper world?

Posted by: Stephen Fuqua on 23 Mar 09

I never thought I will agree with this opinion, but you know... I agree partially now.

Posted by: forex stocks on 30 Apr 09

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