March 16th, 2009

Clay Shirky writes:

Back in 1993, the Knight-Ridder newspaper chain began investigating piracy of Dave Barry”s popular column, which was published by the Miami Herald and syndicated widely. In the course of tracking down the sources of unlicensed distribution, they found many things, including the copying of his column to on usenet; a 2000-person strong mailing list also reading pirated versions; and a teenager in the Midwest who was doing some of the copying himself, because he loved Barry”s work so much he wanted everybody to be able to read it.

One of the people I was hanging around with online back then was Gordy Thompson, who managed internet services at the New York Times. I remember Thompson saying something to the effect of “When a 14 year old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem.”

Clay tells the story well, but he’s off by about 15 years. The death of newspapers could be seen by those paying attention in the mid- to late-’70s when it became clear that the micro-computer revolution had changed the rules.

By the early ’80s the Journalism school at Ohio University partnered with CompuServe to explore the potential of Videotext — graphics were coming, but for then we had scrolling text at 300 baud — and that 14-year-old in the mid-west was toothless and in diapers.

When I started as an assistant editor at Harcourt Brace Jovanovich in 1985, publishers thought I was nuts when I told them that print was dead. The only question they could ask was: How do we make money that way?

Hoping that you’ll be retired before the change comes is not a good business strategy.

They all get no sympathy from me.

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