Two years ago I gave a talk at the LSE where I predicted a ‘catastrophic’ phase of decline for the UK press. It is, I believe, always beneficial to revisit your public mistakes, given that five national newspapers have not closed, that the BBC is still accompanied by ITV and Channel 4 and, for now, BSkyB as British companies. But part of me is still surprised that despite high job losses, closures and newspapers changing hands, not more has shifted.

The two years between the beginning of the recession in the UK (longer in the US) and now, have seen frantic activity in newspapers to trim costs and innovate, but still within very limited boundaries. The overwhelming weight of discussion has centred around the idea of paywalls, or charging for news in some format, even though there is, and has always been, significant evidence that this is a limited strategy for success.

The narrowness of the debate within the news industry is worrying. Think about the last corporate memo from Ray Ozzie, Microsoft’s outgoing chief software architect, a heart-starting call to innovative arms. It is directive to think about a ‘Post PC world ‘ from the perspective of the company which pretty much invented the concept, to move more to ‘the edge’ in imagining a world of ‘continuous services and connected devices’.

For each of us who can clearly envision the end-game, the opportunity is to recognize both the inevitability and value inherent in the big shift ahead, and to do what it takes to lead our customers into this new world

If Mircrosoft inhabits a world where the decline of the PC is ‘inevitable’, journalism does not yet inhabit a world where the demise of print is spoken of as being inevitable even when the evidence suggests that it is.

It is entirely possible that more people have now written about the saga of the Times paywall than have actually paid to read anything through the paywall, such is the level of circular interest in the subject. A couple of particularly flammable logs added to the embers of debate in the past ten days were the ever thoughtful and eloquent Clay Shirky on the subject and a response from City Journalism professor George Brock (who is also a former senior editorial executive at The Times).

In a previous post, I suggested that The Times had lost its influence through a restricted circulation and therefore undermined its overall value as a News Corp asset. Shirky goes further suggesting that the restriction of the audience has altered the essential nature of what The Times is, he writes :

One way to think of this transition is that online, the Times has stopped being a newspaper, in the sense of a generally available and omnibus account of the news of the day, broadly read in the community. Instead, it is becoming a newsletter, an outlet supported by, and speaking to, a specific and relatively coherent and compact audience. (In this case, the Times is becoming the online newsletter of the Tories, the UK’s conservative political party, read much less widely than its paper counterpart.)

and he concludes:

This re-engineering suggests that paywalls don’t and can’t rescue current organizational forms. They offer instead yet another transformed alternative to it. Even if paywall economics can eventually be made to work with a dramatically reduced audience, this particular referendum on the future (read: the present) of newspapers is likely to mean the end of the belief that there is any non-disruptive way to remain a going concern.

George Brock sticks with the idea that there has to be greater focus on creating value, particularly in a world where the repetitious nature of your content is laid bare for all to see. He concludes:

If The Times/Sunday Times numbers remain stuck in low figures, there are only two options. Reverse right out of the paywall and return the money. Or hope that someone invents something more technically sophisticated which allows charging to be combined with better ways to seduce the reader into consuming the journalism. (Next experiment in that line: the New York Times).

But, paywall or none, the underlying the issue for newspapers remains the lowered perception of value.

There is a similarity of conclusion, but the essence of Shirky’s point is that without being a broader participant in public life, newspapers are altered into small exclusive information clubs. And what we think of as a ‘newspaper’ as a whole entity rather than just monetised journalism changes completely. Twitter is closer to being ‘a generally available and omnibus account of the news of the day, broadly read in the community’ than some newspapers if you accept that as a definition.I would accept  most of what Clay Shirky says as being true: newspapers have to change so radically to fulfill their role in a digital age, that they will inevitably not look like newspapers at all.

George Brock’s idea of ‘only two options’ also probably characterises the thinking in quite a number of news organisations. But there are more  than that. Exiting newspapers altogether would be one, suffering small incremental audience declines until closure is another, radically rethinking everything that you do, with the expectation that this might not work either, is a third.

For a long time now (at least the last three decades and maybe longer) newspapers have been trying to innovate out of obsolescence, or in some cases, refusing to innovate as a better path to sustainability. There is as much machismo in the news industry attached to staying the same, as there is in ripping everything up in the IT industry.

At the core of the newspaper industry  I think, is still a belief that something will happen to the market which will enable a continued existence without the kind of transformation Shirky is talking about. The iPad mania was more feverish among executives in newspaper and magazine organisations because it presented the possibility of continuing in a digital format without a fundamental change of form or function to what they do. A new outlet built on some old assumptions. There is not enough evidence yet to suggest that the iPad or whatever app, produced and charged for in the manner of a printed product, is going to evade some of the same problems as a business model.

The IT industry is much more used to a world in which real changes of scale, products and fortune happen rapidly, and can anticipate that what gave them supremacy five years previously might not exist in 18 months times. Media industries are used to accepting that format and products co-exist ad infinitum (‘television didn’t kill off cinema, mp3s didn’t kill off radio…..oh wait’). Text I am sure is robust, although under pressure. Video and audio communication is also safe, animations and visualisations which go beyond our normal framework of linear expression are beginning to emerge, human connectivity is increasing, the role of intermediaries is fuzzy. Everything else is now melting into Ray Ozzie’s imagined world of continuous services and connected devices.

To enter a world of rapid and radical innovation a proportion of every news organisation has to start thinking if not the unthinkable certainly the apparently undoable, and prepare to abandon sustaining the unsustainable.