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Archive for March 14th, 2009

I posed by my initial at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany, in April 2007.

I posed by my initial at the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany, in April 2007.

This will be my Monday column in The Gazette:

 

I can be a little smug when I receive e-mails from conservatives who attribute the decline of newspapers to our supposed liberal leanings.

I understand the shifting media landscape so much better than these people, I tell myself. Aren’t they aware that conservative newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal and Orange County Register are facing the same upheaval?

That smugness reared up in another place last week when I was reading a message from an academic who wanted to know more about the “experiment” we’re undertaking at Gazette Communications. I mulled how to tell the professor this is no experiment. We’re undergoing a no-turning-back transformation here.

Then I read Clay Shirky’s blog post “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable.” I realized I’m just beginning to understand the shifting media landscape. I can see that even a no-turning-back transformation is truly an experiment.

For nearly two years now, my closing shtick at presentations for newspaper industry gatherings has revolved around Johannes Gutenberg, whose development of movable type and a printing press transformed the world in the 15th Century.

I told of visiting the Gutenberg Museum in Mainz, Germany, in 2007. For a journalist in his fourth decade working for newspapers, it was an emotional experience to see the history of printing in its birthplace and to see three ancient, original Gutenberg Bibles. In the same room where the Bibles were displayed, I also saw several older Bibles, beautiful works of art handcrafted by monks in the centuries before Gutenberg.

In closing my presentations about innovation in the news business, I likened those monks to today’s newspaper industry. If the monks’ product was a beautiful handmade book to be passed down through the generations as a treasure, its days were numbered when Gutenberg developed the printing press. But, I added, if their product was a message that they believed in their souls was the word of God, this new technology would help spread that message to countless millions who would never be able to have one of those precious handmade Bibles.

Similarly, I said, our product today is not ink on paper, delivered to your home daily with an account of yesterday’s news. We’re pleased that so many people count on their newspaper and we certainly have been hearing from them the past week after we made some changes to The Gazette. But that newspaper you love or hate is just a delivery system, not the actual product. Our true product is news, information, meaning, context, connection to the community and connection to the marketplace. If we can use today’s revolutionary technology to advance that product and deliver it in different ways to new audiences, we can thrive in this revolution the way the Bible thrived in the printing revolution.

It’s a good shtick and I deliver it with a fervor that would make my preaching parents proud. But when I read Shirky, I realized I didn’t fully understand the Gutenberg revolution and its meaning for today’s newspaper industry.

Citing Elizabeth Eisenstein‘s book The Printing Press as an Agent of Change (I’ve already ordered it and may write more about it in the future), Shirky cited lessons from the Gutenberg revolution that snuck right past me: “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.”

Shirky couldn’t predict, and neither can I, where this revolution will lead: “No one experiment is going to replace what we are now losing with the demise of news on paper, but over time, the collection of new experiments that do work might give us the reporting we need.”

After reading Shirky, I had to admit that we are experimenting, even if we aren’t turning back. The Gazette Co. remains by far Eastern Iowa’s leading news source. We need to experiment now from this strong base, even if the local and national economy and the newspaper industry are in turmoil.

We face an opportunity as profound as Gutenberg’s. We need to be bold enough and visionary enough to seize that opportunity and contribute to this revolution.

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