Higher Education

print journalism and the future of the humanities

I've been reading a good interview with Clay Shirky in the Columbia Journalism Review (Part I & Part II). When the interview gets down to the nitty-gritty of failing newspapers, Shirky makes the following observation about journalists:

If there’s any lesson in all of this, it’s that you can breed an entire
generation of really smart people to not think about existential
threats to the business if you want to. We happen to be in an
environment where, I think, it’s really damaged the print journalism
world’s ability to think through the problems, because half the house
hasn’t been invited into the conversation until just recently. Right?
You know, I’m going to assemble all my print journalists and I’m
suddenly going to tell them that the Chinese wall is down, here’s the
problem we face, and 10 percent of you are laid off. It’s just not the
deal they signed up for. The deal they signed up for was, “We will
never have to care how the money is made.” And that whatever the
advantages there in the flush years—I think that’s what made this
crisis seem even more existential. And, as I said, from my point of
view, it’s fifteen years too late, because the talent was encouraged
never to think about the revenue.

I think there is some clear resonance with the current state of the humanities and the kinds of arguments that Fish has made (see my earlier post on this). Journalism and the humanities both benefited from the post-war era of American economic dominance, even while serving, generally, as loyal intellectual opposition. If we accept Shirky's characterization, then journalists and humanities professors alike, for a generation or more, never had to care about how their paychecks were covered.

For both of us, this has been a slowly then all-at-once phenomenon. For 20 years we've seen ebbing in both professions. Now, I don't want to make too much of the similarities between journalism and the humanities. We clearly have different business models; what we have in common is that journalists and humanities professors don't like to think about the business side.

The tough part about this is that there is more news now than ever. There is plenty for journalism to do. Similarly, there is plenty for the humanities to do. It's simply a matter of funding these activities (yeah, I said "simply"). While networks have exacerbated the challenges our professions face, they also likely offer new opportunities as well. As Shirky observes,

there’s an interesting phenomenon in the university world, where the
number of papers jointly published by two or more researchers working
in different institutions is on the rise. And it’s on the rise because
it’s very… sitting at your desk, it’s almost easier to figure out, “Who
else [in the world] is working on what I’m working on?” than to figure
out, “What are my colleagues down the hall working on that isn’t like
what I’m working on?

We already see this in journalism as well, I think. The collaborative potential of the network includes the possibility of humanists working in new ways and producing new forms of humanistic knowledge. As we do this though, I think we need to figure out a way to make it OK for us to address the business side of what we are doing. Even though our business models are quite different, I think we can look at journalism as a cautionary tale for the humanities.