Clay Shirky on journalism’s future: Revolutions get worse first

Clay Shirky’s prognostication for the future of journalism: “Things are going to get weirder before they get saner.”

And he adds:

“In real revolutions things get worse before they get better. .. One of the bad things I think is going to happen is, I think civic corruption is just going to rise for towns and regions of under about half a million people. Which is to say, I think the old model of the newspaper is going to break faster than the hyperlocal civic reporting can come in its place.”

The full Shirky video and the transcript are below. It is one of a dozen interviews I did with high profile journalism experts at Yale University’s Journalism & The New Media Ecology: Who Will Pay The Messenger?. Watch for Jay Rosen, Michael Schudson, Penelope Abernathy, Robert Picard, Jeff Jarvis and others. We are starting today with Shirky, the author of Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations.

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Leonard Witt: I’m Len Witt, and we’re at Yale University for a conference on The New News Ecology: “Who will pay for the messenger?” I’m here with Clay Shirky, and this is a definite privilege for me. He’s really, truly one of the great thinkers in this area.

Clay Shirky: Thank you very much.

Witt: And he’s got a book recently out, Here Comes Everyone, and he’s at NYU. Clay, maybe you can tell us a little more about the book to start things out, and then we’ll go from there.

Shirky: Sure. The book is called Here Comes Everybody, and the thesis of the book is that group action just got easier. That’s the sort of five word proceed. It’s about the ways the Internet and mobile phones and applications built on top of them have changed the way groups of people come together, get things done, and take action.

Witt: Clay also thinks a lot about journalism and the future of journalism, so what’s your prognostication?

Shirky: Well, the prognostication is actually, it’s related to something Mike Schudson was saying in the panel we were just in, which is that whenever there’s a proposal for some new model of journalism, we’re going to have hyperlocal, we’re going to do professional plus amateur, we’re going to be getting sources from databases, someone always objects, “But that doesn’t fix the whole problem; that’s not the whole thing.” My prediction for journalism is that there is no fix the whole thing, that in fact, we’re not just taking the old institutions and creating 21st century versions of them, we’re entering an ecosystem where news gets produced and distributed and consumed in ways that are different and in some cases dramatically different from what we’re used to. So, my prognostication is that things are going to get weirder before they get saner; they’re going to get more diverse before we understand the new landscape we’re in. Then what we’re going to see is not some new institution that simply picks up where the newspaper left off, we’re going to see lots and lots of little overlapping versions of small organizations trying things that work, and the weight of what society needs for accountability journalism will transfer from this one class of institutions, newspapers, into this kind of patchwork of organizations that are doing little bits and pieces of it. Our concern, I think, should be not how do we build some new, big institution, but rather how do we identify the elements of that patchwork and actually sew them together tightly enough to cover the cases society cares about?

Witt: So do you think we’re going to have higher quality what we’re calling journalism, and ethically sound journalism now? Do you think we’ll have some form of that in the future that will in fact produce high quality, ethically sound journalism or the equivalent of it that will help people in the public square?

Shirky: Absolutely. There is a public need for that in a democracy, and there’s enough interest in that that will be provisioned in some cases. We’ve seen, it’s one of the examples I was using on the panel, was Amanda Michel’s work at first OffTheBus and ProPublica. Michel is an example of the kind of professional plus amateur hybrid that produces high quality work. But, we’re also going to see an increase in lots and lots of other kinds of work. There’s plainly more partisan work, and yet the partisan stuff has a valuable fact checking component. There’s much more raw material, which in and of itself isn’t exactly the story, but can be taken and turned into the story as with the Twitter feeds from Iran or from the sort of the observations from the Chinese after the Sichuan earthquake where what gets out in the public sphere is only partly the story and it has to be kind put together after the fact. So, I don’t even think there’s a metric for whether we can say the new journalism is going to be better or worse than the 20th century models, because so many things are going to be different that any measuring stick of better or worse is going to assume a metric that may not be able to translate from the old media to the new media.

Witt: OK. So maybe I can ask, do you feel that you will be better informed?

Shirky: Oh, I will be. God, yes. But, I am a network inhabiting news junkie of the first order. The world for me has just been a paradise of additional information, additional points of view, additional bits of access, but I’m in the top group of people who will commit and change the energy of my life, the way I educate myself, the money I spend in order to have access to that. People like me are never going to be ill served in an information rich environment. The real question, I think, is for the average citizen in a democracy is, is the accountability journalism, as Alex Jones calls it, is the accountability journalism being produced that keeps their town, their region, their state operating in relatively efficient, relatively responsive, and relatively non-corrupt ways? What happens to the elite class of infovores, although it gets a lot of obsessive attention, is never going to be a problem. The focus really needs to be, what does a citizen, put in the U.S. context, what does a citizen in a town of half a million people or less need from accountability journalism? Because that’s a lot harder to provision than helping chardonnay swilling members of the liberal east coast media elite get access to information.

Witt: So, you’re optimistic about that piece of it or pessimistic?

Shirky: Yes, both. Some things are going to get better, and some things are going to get worse. That’s already visibly happening. One of the things, it’s sort of the paradox of the revolutionary, when you believe that you’re undergoing a change that is really dramatic, you have to admit that your ability to predict the future is limited, and in real revolutions things get worse before they get better. If they’re not, then they’re not revolutions. That doesn’t happen, they’re not revolutions. They’re just improvements. One of the bad things I think it going to happen is, I think civic corruption is just going to rise for towns and regions of under about half a million people. Which is to say, I think the old model of the newspaper is going to break faster than the hyperlocal civic reporting can come in its place. For people like me, for people who live in world capitals and have access to all the information they can possibly consume and then some and the time and luxury for dealing with that, our life is not only going to get better, our life has already gotten much better than it was even in the ‘90s. But, at the same time for cities and regions that are currently not in that part of the network, just getting somebody to go down to the city council again today to make sure that nobody’s skimming off the top, that’s a really hard job to fill. And I don’t see the web rushing in to fill that job.

Witt: OK, thank you. Now, do you have another book coming out? Did I read somewhere?

Shirky: I do have another book coming out. It is coming out for next June. That book actually picks up where the first book left off. The working title is Cognitive Surplus, although I’m not sure if that will be the final title. But, the title Cognitive Surplus is around the idea that our free time and talents, when considered in aggregate, represent a resource that’s much bigger and more valuable than when it’s just each of us operating alone. So it’s really talking about what happens when society has access to one another’s talents at the scale that the Internet gives us access to those talents for.

Witt: Perfect. Thank you very much.

Shirky: Very good.

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16 Responses to Clay Shirky on journalism’s future: Revolutions get worse first
  1. jan shaw
    December 1, 2009 | 1:16 pm

    I would say that fact-based truth is about the only measurement of journalism. The rest is advocacy or spin or opinion.

    Jan

  2. Chris Jordan
    December 2, 2009 | 1:16 am

    Thanks for posting this!. A tripod would have helped, but the content is really interesting.

    Chris

  3. eve
    December 2, 2009 | 2:15 am

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  4. links for 2009-12-02 « Vox Publica
    December 2, 2009 | 1:01 pm

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  6. HarrisMeyer
    December 3, 2009 | 3:43 pm

    While I agree with Shirky’s comments about the great uncertainty of what’s to come in terms of accountability journalism, I scoff at his claim that “infovores” like himself are going to be better off. I don’t care how much of an infovore he is, he would not found out about the U.S. black jails, the secret surveillance program, the Tiger Force murder rampage in Vietnam, Bush’s signing statement policy, etc. etc. etc. without the existence of skilled, dedicated, well-funded full-time news reporters and organizations. He’s fooling (and flattering) himself. The disappearance of full-time accountability journalism organizations is going to seriously affect him and everyone else.

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