Thursday, March 19, 2009

Thinking the unthinkable

There is a growing discussion in the blogosphere and elsewhere about the newspaper publishing crisis. Newspapers barely surviving are now being pushed over the edge by the current recession. It's certainly an important discussion in its own right but I have also been struck by how it parallels the crisis in Christianity and religion generally. This essay by Clay Shirky has gotten quite a bit of attention because, as its title says, he is willing to "think the unthinkable". In short, newspaper cannot be saved; economically you just can't make the numbers work anymore. As he goes on to say, however, what society needs is not newspapers but journalism. What will replace newspapers? We are in the midst of a revolution, Shirky says, and therefore we just can't know. (While he doesn't mention him there are clear echoes here of Thomas Kuhn.) Shirky discusses the invention of the printing press as a comparable situation to today and the social chaos that resulted, one part of which was Luther and the Protestant Reformation.

There is an important way in which this conversation about newspapers is further advanced than the (minimal) conversation about the fate of organized religion. Where Shirky can say "Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism," the religious crisis can't be comparably summarized. Completing that statment would go a long way towards begining a serious conversation about the future of Christianity and religion: "Society doesn't need churches. What we need is __________." How should we fill in the blank? Until we can think that "unthinkable" possibility we are going to continue to live with our head in the sand.
Shirky's full article is well worth reading.


theduchessofH said...

I am renewing my subscription to The Toronto Star, and The Globe And Mail after reading this post.

I loved reading a hard copy of the papers, but stopped delivery last year. I thought I was being a little more green by reading online?
I never enjoyed reading the news online, and I can't wait to feel that creepy, inky, can't wait to wash my hands, paper again.

Doug said...

I'm not sure the "inky" paper is what I enjoy but I agree I do enjoy reading a "paper newspaper". Unfortunately the Tribune here in Chicago is a shadow of its former self: lots of color pics, big ads, much less content. So we're actually thinking of canceling our subscription! Are papers in Canada going through the same travails as in the US?