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January 6, 2009

The Russians are coming (and going): Emerson and Shirky on newspapers

By Peter Kirwan MM blog

When planets collide? Not quite. But reading William Rees-Mogg and Clay Shirky consecutively does involve a bit of cognitive dissonance.

I could riff on about the following quotes for the rest of the morning. But I should (mostly) leave that to you.

Here’s Clay Shirky, interviewed in yesterday’s Guardian, talking about the psychology of the newspaper industry:

The great misfortune of newspapers in this era is that they were such a good idea for such a long time that people felt the newspaper business model was part of a deep truth about the world, rather than just the way things happened to be.

It’s like the fall of communism, where a lot of the eastern European satellite states had an easier time because there were still people alive who remembered life before the Soviet Union. Nobody in Russia remembered it. Newspaper people are like Russians, in a way.

This strikes me as a brilliant analogy. And Rees-Mogg? Over the break, he’s been reading English Studies, a little-known work by the US essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson.

The book, published in 1856, is a compendium of pieces written by Emerson during visits to Britain in 1833 and 1847. What really caught my eye was Emerson’s description of the Times, as quoted by Rees-Mogg:

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The English like it for its complete information… they like its independence; they do not know, when they take it up, what the paper is going to say: but, above all, for the nationality and confidence of its tone.

It thinks for them all; it is their understanding and day’s ideal daguerreotyped. When I see them reading its columns, they seem to me becoming every moment more British. It has the national courage, not rash and petulant, but considerate and determined.

Two quotes; two entirely different worlds. The striking thing about Emerson’s discussion of the Times is the near-absence of any mention of news. (OK, there’s a mention of “complete information”, but that’s not quite the same as news, is it?)

Writing (admittedly) a few years before William Howard Russell’s dispatches from the Crimea, Emerson’s discussion of the Times revolves almost entirely around opinion, tone and the ability of editors to channel the public mood.

Perhaps the newspaper industry will shortly return to the place from whence it came (at least in Emerson’s eyes). 

In a sharp piece, Peter Wilby echoes Richard Addis in suggesting that 2009 will be the year in which newspapers — confronted by a shrinking revenue base — are forced to “decide what they do well, and what their readers really want from them”.

In this respect, examining mid-19th century copies of the Times might offer some inspiration.

But only for the Russians among you.

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