I have spent a lot of time this weekend reading the work of David Carr, the NYTimes journalist who died suddenly on Thursday night at the age of 58. He did drugs in his youth, and smoked. We learned late yesterday that he had lung cancer.
But what a voice, what a gifted writer, what a truth-teller; a terrible loss. It has been a comfort and an inspiration today to hear his voice, both in writing and video, which naturally is all over the web. He said if you want to be a writer you have to put your “fingies” on the keyboard. So I’m doing that.
It is true, you just have to sit down and write, and know that it won’t amount to much, most of the time. But by writing a lot and often something good will eventually come out. There is a lot of wisdom in that.
And too, Carr had important things to say about the “new media” — and what the response of traditional journalism should be to it. He believed in both, that both could thrive and survive. And it looks like that is happening — that his take is coming true. The Times is thriving again after weathering a scare a few years ago when they had significant money issues. But the new media is very much muscling its way to the fore, and they are doing some good work too. Carr noted that they started off crummy and copying, but they are starting to make good work and add value. It sounds very much like the Christensen model of disruption. The Times has learned (slowly, and with difficulty) that they have to play in the new arena, and they are doing so. So they have been able to innovate even while “protecting” their brand and tradition.
But the Times is not dying or going away. Yes, many papers have, and this attrition has been painful. Clay Shirky has predicted the end of print newspapers. I am a great admirer of Clay, but I think he is wrong on this one. Even if he’s right, if the Times manages their transition and innovation well and smartly, it won’t matter. This is a form of transition in the business world that is not new. Much of it has been wrought by technology in recent years, but such disruption has happened for centuries. Few can innovate their way out of it, but some can.
What I think is most interesting is that our immediate instinct is to predict complete demise of the past, and an overwhelming win by the new. Perhaps this is because we have such a strong association with sports metaphors? Where one team wins and the other just flat loses? Victory, Defeat, and Nothing else? But what we have seen recently in many arenas in technology is that as new “products” enter the market, there is correction for the old product, but the old one isn’t “defeated” — it doesn’t die and wither away completely. Sure, there have been a lot of newspapers closing, but there are still many that have survived. Smart investors like Rupert Murdoch and Warren Buffet and Jeff Bezos have made huge investments in significant newspapers properties. These are not people who throw their money down a hole for fun.
It brings to mind in my own thinking about, and parallels to, legal education. Law Schools are under severe economic pressure. Yesterday, it was announced that Thomas Mitchell and Hamline will merge. That is the first of probably many more mergers and closings. There are now upstart competitors — iLaw and Concord might be the HuffPost of a decade ago. Maybe their product is not as good right now. But they are getting better. And much of legal education is stuck in the past while the profession we serve has moved on. Has had to move on. There has been some innovation in law schools; the growth of Experiential Learning is an example. But we simply have to innovate, and radically: we have to create new products, such as online offerings to different degrees and certificates. Good ones, serving our current market, and new markets that we discover, create, and serve. This is the way of the future. The Times has shown us. David Carr showed us.
In the world of disrupted media, we will sorely miss his voice of clarity and reason about these things.