J.M. Reep

Creative Destruction

In Commentary on August 8, 2009 at 9:19 pm

(Note: This is a re-post of an essay that was originally published on another, now-defunct website last March.)

I’ve always been one part anarchist, one part egalitarian, so nothing fills me with greater glee than seeing the manifestations and symbols of corporatism and authoritarianism come crashing down. This is a exciting time for folks like me because the Internet is rewriting all of the rules of all of the games, replacing corporate and governmental control with an unrestrained democracy and freedom. As the music industry and the publishing industry stumble and come crashing down, you might imagine the anarchist in me sitting on the sidelines with a big tub of popcorn, laughing and smiling and enjoying the show, while the egalitarian in me cheers for the new opportunities everyone has to express themselves creatively.

The music and publishing industries are fighting for their lives. If they can get their acts together and change their business models, they might survive. What won’t survive, though, is the newspaper industry. Already, newspapers such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the Rocky Mountain News are things of the past, and there are hundreds of other American newspapers in line to follow them. My own local newspaper has already announced some layoffs, cutbacks in the content that is offered, and subscription rate increases. They claim they’re doing all right financially, but any newspaper that has to raise rates and cut content is hardly doing OK. Even the really big newspapers like the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times are in deep trouble. I’ve predicted before that almost every American newspaper in print today will no longer be printing physical newspapers in five years, and I’m sticking to that prediction.

Over the weekend, I read a great little article by Sonia Arrison titled “Why It’s OK for Newspapers to Die.” In her article, Arrison borrowed the term “creative destruction” to describe what’s happening in the world of journalism today. With the threat of so many newspapers collapsing, the sensationalist response is to ask, “But what will happen to journalism if newspapers die?!?!” The sober answer, however, is “Nothing.” It’s important to separate the concept of “journalism” from the medium of “newspapers.” It’s not that the medium is no longer the message, but that the message is switching to a new medium. The same thing has happened as “music” has jumped from physical CDs to digitial MP3s and as “literature” is jumping from physical books to digital ebooks. So fear not: journalism will continue to exist — it just won’t exist in newspaper form.

And that’s where the creative destruction comes in. The newspaper industry is being destroyed, and as it’s destroyed it will leave a vacuum of news and information — especially at the local level. No one yet knows what will fill that vacuum, but you can be sure that we’ll see a number of very creative and innovative attempts to provide people and communities with the news and information that they were accustomed to receiving through their newspapers. Ultimately, the new medium that takes over will be better, more efficient, less superficial, and more environmentally friendly, than the newspapers of today. There is also, for the first time in decades, the chance for competing voices and opinions to be heard. For example, my local newspaper has a very politically conservative editorial board (advocating a straight Republican ticket in the elections last November), but when that newspaper, too, finally shuts down, there will at last be an opportunity for the politically liberal perspective to have a voice in my community and gain a foothold in the production and distribution of news and information.

And this concept of creative destruction is coming to the publishing industry as well. As the big publishing houses struggle to maintain relevance and as their business models collapse, the opportunities for innovation arise. Products and services like the Kindle, Lulu, Critters, and Smashwords will take “literature” in new directions and make it possible for more people than ever before to express themselves creatively through language.

I’ve taken a lot of heat from certain quarters for wishing for the destruction of the publishing industry. It’s the anarchist in me that longs for the chaos that a half dozen bankrupted corporations will bring, but the egalitarian in me anticipates the freedom and innovation of ordinary people that will fill the void. When I call for the big publishing houses to burn to the ground, it’s because I expect a phoenix will rise from the ashes.

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