Home > Future of Journalism, Future of News Media, Future of Newspapers > Clay Shirky on the future of Journalism – Shorenstein Center talk from Sept 09

Clay Shirky on the future of Journalism – Shorenstein Center talk from Sept 09

A really penetrating talk by Clay Shirky on the future of Journalism – specifically what he calls Accountability Journalism – delivered at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy in September 2009. Here’s the video:

Here’s a transcript of the video, which is absolutely worth reading in its entirety. Additionally, Shirky’s talk is largely an elaborate of a previously article he wrote in July 2009 titled Not an Upgrade – an Upheaval.

Accountability Journalism

First, a clarification of terms. Accountability Journalism, as I understand Shirky’s use of the term, refers to journalism that holds powerful interests accountable to in a democractic society. Most specifically, this refers to publically-elected officials, but I believe the term could easily be extended to include those that operate in private companies that also have some expectation of serving the public interest (which is pretty much any large company or organization).

Shirky refers to the book Losing the News: The Future of the News That Feeds Democracy, written by the session’s moderator Alex S. Jones, as a fine source of analysis on critical issues facing Accountability Journalism. A nice review of Jones’ book can be found here.

Key Insights from Shirky’s talk

Shirky’s talk touched on some really key insights for me that I hadn’t fully considered before. Following are, what for me, the key ones.

The marriage of Accountability Journalism and Advertising in Newspapers – an industrial artifact, not a deep truth

Shirky believes that Newspapers’ ability to provide accountability journalism is shrinking, and he is convinced these changes are secular and irreversible. Quoting Shirky:

The first observation — made wily and probably in the most depth by Paul Starr in Creation of the Media — is that, dated from some time between the rise of the penny press and the end of the Second World War, we had a very unusual circumstance — and I think especially in the United States — where we had commercial entities producing critical public goods. We had ad-supported newspapers producing accountability journalism.

Now, it’s unusual to have that degree of focus on essentially both missions — both making a profit and producing this kind of public value. But that was the historic circumstance, and it lasted for decades. But it was an accident. There was a set of forces that made that possible. And they weren’t deep truths — the commercial success of newspapers and their linking of that to accountability journalism wasn’t a deep truth about reality. Best Buy was not willing to support the Baghdad bureau because Best Buy cared about news from Baghdad. They just didn’t have any other good choices.

That’s a VERY provocative insight, and in many ways it reflects the very essence of the American view of capitalism – that a public good can be provisioned by private market forces so as to maximize (or at least tolerably service) the public interest. Now I personally think that’s a bit ludicrous, and the crisis in the U.S. Economy, Banking, Healthcare, Real Estate, etc. certainly provide fodder for questioning this assumption. Nonetheless, it is at the heart of many Republican and “free market” policies over the past several decades.

This marriage of convenience between Accountability Journalism and Advertising had several consequences. Again, quoting Shirky:

The first of them was that advertisers were forced to overpay for the services they received, because there weren’t many alternatives for reaching people with display ads — or especially things like coupons. And because they overpaid, the newspapers essentially had the kind of speculative investment capital to do long-range, high-risk work. …

The second characteristic of the happy state of the 20th-century newspapering was that the advertisers were not only overcharged, they were underserved.

Neither of those, neither the overpaying or the underserving, is true in the current market any longer, because media is now created by demand rather than supply — which is to say the next web page is printed when someone wants it to be printed, not printed and stored in a warehouse in advance if someone who may want it. Turned out that when you have an advertising market that balances supply and demand efficiently, the price plummets. And so for a long time, people could say analog dollars to digital dimes as if — well, when do we get the digital dimes? The answer may be never. The answer may be that we are seeing advertising priced at its real value for the first time in history, and that value is a tiny fraction of what we had gotten used to.

Decoupling Advertising from Journalistic Platforms

With the rise of (i) Digital Content Production, (ii) Digital Marketplaces and Platforms – for example: Craigslist, eBay, Monster, Amazon, and (iii) Search Engines, the economic and “attention” necessity of “tightly-coupling” commercial advertising to mass-produced newspapers quickly evaporates. As a result, says Shirky, advertisers are much-better and more economically served. Again, Shirky:

Underserving is even a bigger problem, right? The institutions harrying newspapers — Monster and Match and Craigslist — all have the logic that if you want to list a job or sell a bike, you don’t go to the place that’s printing news from Antananarivo and the crossword puzzle. You go to the place that’s good for listing jobs and selling bikes. And so if you had a good idea for a business, you wouldn’t launch it in order to give the profits to the newsroom. You’d launch it in order to give the profits to the shareholders. …

The coherence of newspapers is not intellectual, it’s industrial. Which is to say, if you’re running a website and somebody’s on your website and they just done a crossword puzzle and they seem to really like it, what’s the next thing you’re gonna show them? Is it news from Tegucigalpa? No. It’s another crossword puzzle, because that’s the only thing you can [inaudible]. The idea that someone who is doing a crossword puzzle may also want news about the coup in Honduras or how the Lakers are doing — it doesn’t make any sense. It’s never made any sense, in terms of what the user wants. It’s what — it’s what print is capable of as a bundle. What goes into a print newspaper is the content that, on the margins, produces commercial interest in the least interested user.

Wow. To me that really captures at its very essence the powerful trends in the decline of newspaper revenues. Fascinating.

*** January 5 2009 update ***
Jeff Jarvis has a post to this effect the day prior to this post, see Surrendering advertising … killing bundling.
*** End of update ***

Spreadable Media and other Insights

Shirky provides many additional insights in his talk, around the role of “spreadable” media, the wisdom (or lack thereof) in the “paywall” revenue model when applied to accountability journalism, and what the near-future is likely to hold for the revolution in how we produce and consume news in society.

I won’t delve into these topics, but please refer to Shirky’s talk for his thoughts on these issues.

In Summary …

Once again, powerful insights from Clay Shirky. It will definitely lead me to further re-think the traditional news organization, and how it will inevitably change to accomodate the new media and technological realities of our day.



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