Web advocate on the future of journalism

Bloggers  are not enough when it comes to local politics; neither are newspapers. On their own, neither form looks likely to guarantee the provision of news reporting in a form that will provide the information required for democratic oversight. Thus says Clay Shirky, one of the primary advocates/prophets of new media.

His solution: the bits that will make money should make money. The bits that won’t – civic journalism, politics – should turn themselves into charitable endowments, fast.

Shirky is a very interesting character, “in favor of crowdsourcing and collaborative efforts online, using the phrase “the Internet runs on love” to describe the nature of such collaborations” according to his Wikipedia entry. Many journalists will find him irritating but please read his stuff anyway: he knows what he’s talking about, even if it comes over very techno-determinist.

His fondess for the stuff doesn’t make him uncritical. “I am sceptical that without some higher degree of social coordination a loose collection of bloggers will be able to pay enough attention to what is going on at the local level to keep city councils from descending into corruption,” Shirky says in an interview with Journalism.co.uk. “Of all the challenges posed by transferring from old media models to new media models that is the biggest.”

This doesn’t mean he has lost his faith in the revolutionary social power of technology, crowds or their combination. He expands on this in a very good interview with the Columbia Journalism Review that is worth printing and reading. “The part of that that’s really hard journalism, like covering the city council or whatever, where it’s long and it’s boring but you got to do it, is going to increasingly have to find new business models, because we can’t just rely on Bloomingdale’s to subsidize that anymore with display ads. And so we’re going to have this move to what I think are going to be a lot more nonprofit models for news, a la NPR. But, much more importantly, the idea that there are news organizations and other kinds of organizations, I think, is just going to break down under the weight of the evidence,” he says.

It will irritate and anger a lot of journalists. Shirky has little patience with the idea that journalists only belated discovered the problem of a bust business model. “The idea of advertisements as separate from the journalists, was successful enough and widespread enough and essentially honored in speech, if not always in action… that was a serious enough barrier that it actually kept the journalists themselves from thinking through their own business model. A lot of working journalists, and especially print journalists, are in the position of being sort of kept women.”

As for foreign correspondents: “Like, why is it that the guy sitting in Mosul in a flak jacket is being subsidized by Bonwit Teller? You wouldn’t make this up from scratch, it just doesn’t make much sense.”

“[W]hat’s going to happen is, basically, the number of people who commit acts of journalism will rise enormously,” he concludes, “and the number of people who derive most, or all, of their income from acts of journalism is going to shrink.”


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