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.