I’m following the news of the imploding newspaper business and often reflecting on how it correlates with the institutional church.
On the pieces I read there is some discussion as to how much of this has been newspapers taking on too much debt. I can’t answer that question. Part of it certainly is the fact that since the development of radio the monopoly that newspapers enjoyed has been eroding. Radio was faster and cheaper than paper. TV came along and more and more people got their news through that source, and now of course the Internet and news aggregators are getting the attention and the heat. Many suspect that some sort of tipping point has been reached. However this thing shakes out it seems that “business as usual” is through in terms of newspapers.
Part of the alarm that is being raised is over the fear of losing a professional class. Journalism was assumed to be a necessary element of a free society and journalists have been freed up to ply their craft supported by large corporations that purchased their time, underwrote their expenses, gave them the freedom to pursue stories, investigate, publish, and sustain a professional community that promoted standards. The fear is that this all will be lost and many believe this is happening now as journalists are being laid off and getting our of the profession entirely. The assumption is that aggregators like Google are parasites that sustain themselves on the labor of others without contributing back from their sources of income (advertising) to the content creators and their employers. I think that’s probably a fair assumption.
There are certain ironies in this situation. The technology that is blamed for being an overly hungry parasite has allowed print to be disseminated at a cost structure that paper can’t compete with. What is lost in the technological transition is the ability to control the dissemination of your content. Music and video content face the same challenge and fear.
One group’s loss is almost always another group’s opportunity, enter the “new media”. Tonight I listened to the Engadget crew on their podcast reminisce about the founding of the blog now at the 5 year anniversary of their creation. The conversation most reminded a group church planters describing what it took to get going. There were the long hours, the working without pay, the sacrifices, all for the love of their vocation. It reminded me of an illustration in a Tim Keller sermon on work where someone observed that it was during World War II that a group of young people were happiest in their professions working for little or not money in jobs they had never envisioned but they were on a mission. This Engadget crew was missional about being gadget journalists. They had contempt for the professional, institutional cadre of reporters that signed non-disclosure-agreements and accepted corporate junkets. They weren’t just passing out press releases written by gadget manufacturers when they thought an item was crap they said so and enjoyed speaking the truth. People were paid hardly anything because they didn’t have the money but they watched how their efforts gained a following and bit by bit they built their own institution which today is established. They don’t share the fear of the institutional media journalists, they imagine their curve is moving upwards.
The dynamics stressing the newspapers are also stressing institutional churches. Part of what the church does is content providing and the Internet has exploded the availability of religious content just as it has exploded availability of news content. These institutions supported men and women pursing study, investigation, content creation and standards, some of which is threatened by the deteriorating conditions of support for those institutions. Churches are also communities in ways newspapers aren’t so the dynamics of change will be different.
I think both churches and newspapers are going to enter a larger period of shaking out. I think what will emerge from the other side of the shake-out isn’t yet known. What encourages me is the passion of these gadget journalists and the passion of church planters.
It’s interesting to track changes through control-breaking technological transitions. Sheet music monopolies were threatened by recording technology. The outcome was a greater distribution of music. Movie studios and movie theaters were threatened by TV and video. The creation of video content has exploded as has availability. I suspect that at the other end of the newspaper shake-out we will in fact see more content created that is less susceptible to centralized institutional control. There may be less money in it, or perhaps only during the transition.
I don’t want to imply that there won’t be loss in the transition. There is always loss, but the truth is that you have to move forward. There is no going back. That’s true for newspapers, and it’s true for church.