Media Guru: Print is Dying, Adults Must Stop Lying to Journalism Students About Its Potential

Journalism innovation guru Clay Shirky believes print is a “wasting asset” and that students ignorantly, inaccurately believe in it because “adults [are] lying to them” about its long-term potential.

In a new blog post spreading like wildfire within the geeky journalism interwebs, Shirky rails against print nostalgists — adults in the media whose lingering attraction to ink stains and the way things were has blinded them to the realities of today’s and tomorrow’s news landscape.

He argues their nostalgia is infecting the next generation with a similarly warped belief that print will be — must be — OK in the long run even while all signs point to its “terminal decline.”


His bottom-line assessment of these nostalgists reminds me of senator Claire McCaskill’s take on Bill Clinton in 2006: “I think he’s been a great leader, but I don’t want my daughter near him.”

Here’s Shirky’s two cents:

“We don’t have much time left to manage the transition away from print. We are statistically closer to the next recession than to the last one, and another year or two of double-digit ad declines will push many papers into 3-day printing schedules, or bankruptcy, or both. 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.”

Here are two quick thoughts about Shirky’s print-nostalgia smackdown:

1) It’s not about the lies as much as the reality.

We’re living in a wondrously weird time from a media perspective — literally right in the middle of an ENORMOUS shift. We’ll laugh about it one day.

Just consider the ironies of the betwixt-and-between scene at the moment: We have scores of journalism students who “would rather lick asphalt than subscribe to a paper publication” yet still passionately flock to their campus newsrooms to regularly produce a print pub. They score news from their social media feeds, Reddit and Yahoo yet still worship a front-page print byline. And they are implored to embrace 21st-century skills such as data mining, programming and entrepreneurship while being forced to enroll in classes that instead spit out 20th-century MOs.

The essence of this confusion is captured by a recent quote from the editor-in-chief of The Washington Square News, the student newspaper at New York University — Shirky’s employer. As she shared during a video debate with her own managing editor:

My heart is with print. I think I just have a sort of personal attachment to print. It’s really cool to have a physical copy of the hard work we do every night. Being able to see it in print is just a lot more exciting to me . . . than just looking at it online. . . . Being able to pick that up every day is really amazing to me. . . . For us, currently right now, we couldn’t really afford to not have a print paper. The majority of our revenue comes from print ads. If we cut back on that, we would lose a lot of advertisers and the ads on our website are just not as profitable. So, in the state we are right now, it would be very challenging to suddenly switch to online-only.”

So is her heart with print and her assessment of the paper’s financial reliance on print really because masses of adults are more or less lying to her? Or is it just a reflection of this weird moment of transition in which the past, present and future are tangled up in a confused jumble that everyone — young and old — is striving to catch up with, prepare for and more fully understand?

2) Print is still part of the sequence of things.

Shirky calls print a “wasting asset” and says the adults and institutions who believe it has any sort of future are lying to themselves and current journalism students. He equates it to outright child abuse. Does he think his own employer, New York University, is a liar and abuser?

Because NYU’s main undergraduate journalism major features a prominent print/online sequence. On one of its About pages, the program says its wants “to prepare students to work across media platforms.” Print is still one of the platforms it apparently believes in.

That does not make NYU a liar, abuser or even a nostalgist, in my opinion. It’s a realist. Print may be in decline, but it’s not literally disappearing or segueing to antique-jukebok-relic status any time soon. It’s still part of the media mix or, in NYU’s case, the sequence of things.


‘Dean of the College Media Business’ to Student Journalists: Stop Dropping Print!

In Video Chat, Top NYU Student Newspaper Editors Debate Future of Journalism

One Response to “Media Guru: Print is Dying, Adults Must Stop Lying to Journalism Students About Its Potential”
  1. If the school paper is to be a teaching instrument for young journalists, there still is a lot of learn from making print newspapers. Writing “for space” and prioritizing stories and harder deadlines. Also, working with advertisers, distribution and putting out a compelling product that students actually want to pick up in between classes.

    I wrote about that a bit here:

    Some photography programs still teach students to shoot on film and publish in dark rooms. It’s not nostalgia, but understanding how a product is made.

    The other aspect is independence — a print publication generates outside ad revenue. This gives the paper more power in negotiating campus politics. Web ad sales just aren’t lucrative for a small college media outlet.