By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Clay Shirky’s bracing dystopianism

Clay Shirky (left) and Alex Jones. At far right is Peter Kadzis, executive editor of the Phoenix newspapers.

Clay Shirky (left) and Alex Jones at the Shorenstein Center. (Click for larger image.)

This past March, the author and media futurist Clay Shirky wrote a provocative blog post that encapsulated and defined the dilemma facing professional journalism, and especially the newspaper business: On the one hand, civil society as we know it would be much the poorer without newspapers. On the other hand, there’s probably nothing that can be done to save them.

Earlier today Shirky, intense, bald and bespectacled, turned up at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center to expound on his views. And though he made it clear that he is no utopian (or even much of an optimist), he nevertheless laid out some directions that ought to be pursued in order to preserve “accountability journalism” — a phrase that encompasses investigative reporting, public-interest journalism and other expensive undertakings that require long, hard labor with no guarantee of the result.

From the rise of the penny press in the 1830s until just a few years ago, Shirky said, accountability journalism was financed by commercial interests whose advertising options were both limited and expensive. The insurmountable challenge facing newspapers today, he added, is that the Internet has freed advertisers from having to subsidize such public goods as, say, a Baghdad bureau, or an investigation into local corruption.

“It may be that we’re seeing advertising priced at its real value for the first time in history,” Shirky said — and that value, he added, is a “tiny fraction” of what newspapers traditionally charged.

With newspapers supplying about 85 percent of accountability journalism, Shirky said that what we need are a large number of small experiments to try to make up some of the gap. He divided those experiments into three parts:

  • Commercial: The traditional advertising model for newspapers, magazines and broadcasters.
  • Public: News organizations funded by money unconnected to commerce, the prime examples being public radio and non-profit news sites.
  • Social: Journalism produced mainly through donated time, including certain pro/am crowdsourcing initiatives such as Off the Bus, a citizen-journalism project that covered the 2008 presidential campaign for the Huffington Post.

“No one is smart enough to get it right, which is why we need a lot of experimentation,” Shirky said.

Even with that experimentation, he added, the ongoing shrinkage of newspapers is likely to create a “giant hole” that will not be filled for some time. He said he has a vision of communities of 10,000 people or fewer becoming rife with “casual endemic corruption,” as newspapers are no longer able to fulfill their traditional watchdog roles.

Nor does Shirky see any good coming out of proposals to charge for online content, thus making it more difficult for readers to share important journalism. Shirky noted that the reason the Boston Globe’s reporting on sexual abuse within the Catholic Church several years ago had so much more resonance than did similar reporting a decade earlier was that the Internet enabled readers to forward stories and turn a regional scandal into a matter of national and international concern.

Indeed, Shorenstein Center director Alex Jones pointed out the Boston Phoenix had already broken parts of the story before the Globe began its work. The difference, Jones said, was that the Globe had a superior platform that enabled it to become part of the Internet conversation.

So what does Shirky have to offer for those of us trying to make sense of the newspaper crisis? Certainly not much in the way of new information. His now-famous blog post is essentially a summary of what many people have been saying for the past decade.

But Shirky has a way of synthesizing that information into a coherent whole that is at once bleak and bracing. He’s right to say that newspapers will continue to shrink, though surely the best of them will continue in some form, with a limited mission and published mostly or entirely online.

And he’s also right to say that, no, newspapers really can’t be replaced. When you think through the dilemma on his terms, it’s clear why that can’t happen — never again will commercial enterprises be compelled through scarcity to subsidize journalism at a high cost and at little benefit to them.

More than anything, though, he’s right that we have to try. It won’t be one big thing; it will be many little things. We’ll fall short. But it’s better than doing nothing. And the challenge couldn’t be more exciting or important.

More: Ethan Zuckerman covers Shirky’s talk here.

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  1. Greg

    Curious about Shirky’s prediction regarding communities under 10,000. I thought that smaller community papers were more financially stable in this economic/advertising environment than the big metros. Have small papers been failing? The newspapers that I hear failing are big metros — Seattle PI, Rocky Mountain News, etc. So I had thought big cities were more in danger of losing their watchdog newspapers, and potentially becoming (more) rife with corruption. What have I been missing?

    • Dan Kennedy

      Greg: Certainly the GateHouse papers, which mainly serve small communities, are not doing well, although it’s problems are more debt-related than anything else. I’ll confess that I wasn’t 100 percent sure why Shirky singled out small towns, though.

  2. Many small newspapers, especially in suburbs around larger cities, have been purchased by conglomerates as part of a geographic consolidation strategy. For example, in the Austin area, almost all the suburban papers are owned by Cox, which also owns the Austin American-Statesman (for now). So as the conglomerates go, so may go their small-town subsidiaries. I don’t know if that’s Shirky’s reasoning or not, but it could be a factor.

  3. amused

    “News organizations funded by money unconnected to commerce”

    Doesn’t exist.

    Nobody is heaping money on reporters out of good citizenship. It’s pay for plug.

    WBUR and WGBH are as sales oriented as any commercial broadcast facility. They just call them grant announcements instead of spots, and retain the right to run beg-a-thons to make their quarterly or monthly(sometimes it seems like weekly or hourly) budgets.

    As for the pending doom of “casual endemic corruption” caused by non-existent or ineffective small town papers, it’s already here.

    Most 10,000 small town papers depend so much on locally generated ad revenue they don’t do much poking.

    The biggest threats to small town papers is 20 years old and comes more from malls and the resulting withering of downtown, homegrown commerce than from the Internet. The chain stores buy national and regional media, not the local Daily Star Leader-American. The trend toward chain retail has either killed small town papers or rendered them next to irrelevant for anything other than wedding news, high school sports scores and funerals.

    Anytime you see law enforcement busting some corrupt municipal scheme, you see the failure of local journalism which could have known, should have known, probably did know, but which backed away in ignorant bliss

    • Dan Kennedy

      “News organizations funded by money unconnected to commerce.” Doesn’t exist.

      Of course it does. Underwriting — yes, advertising — is just one leg of public radio’s funding, the others being listener contributions, foundation grants, and government funding.

  4. amused

    As for the price of advertising, it all comes down to the cost of delivering the audience, and for newspapers, that audience has been delivered by presenting a compelling product that you need daily. Are advertisers subsidizing bureaus in Beruit? No more than they’re subsidizing old Joe and his daily trek to the cop shop. Would circulation fall if old Joe was gassed? Yes, and by a lot. Would circulation fall if the Beruit bureau was shut? Not by much, more probably it would fall among the more highly-educated subscribers with more discretionary income, which makes the buy less attractive for advertisers.

    Rare indeed is the product introduced in America without mass appeal advertising. Newspapers have been a pretty cost effective way of getting the word out.

  5. Local Editor

    “Anytime you see law enforcement busting some corrupt municipal scheme, you see the failure of local journalism which could have known, should have known, probably did know, but which backed away in ignorant bliss.”
    Personally, I don’t back away in ignorant bliss, I just don’t have the resources to devote to one story, no matter how big.
    A damn shame, I admit.

  6. Shirky talked about two scales for the rise of corruption due to lack of journalism, small town and county or regional.

    Here in Cambridge, MA I know that the Globe, Herald, Metro, and Phoenix don’t regularly cover Cambridge politics. Neither, really, do the Cambridge Chronicle or Cambridge Tab. Robert Winters has been doing his online Cambridge Civic Journal for a decade or more. It used to be that new reporters for the Chronicle would talk to him to get the lay of the land and the paper would link to him. Now neither is happening. If you want to know about Cambridge nitty gritty Cambridge Civic Journal (and probably a few other bloggers) are it.

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