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Why the chaos in media might be a good thing

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Everywhere around us we see evidence of chaos and upheaval in the media industry — newspapers laying off staff and even closing, advertising revenues continuing to decline and so on. What can be done about this state of affairs? Media analyst and journalism professor Clay Shirky says not only is there nothing that can be done about it but also that it may actually be a good thing, because it will help spur innovation. Let’s hope he is right, because there is plenty of chaos to go around.

In his post (on a blog that is almost defiantly old-school, with a default WordPress theme from about 2003), Shirky says that his thinking on the topic has been accelerated by wondering what he is going to tell his undergraduate journalism students about the industry they are planning to join when he starts teaching at New York University in the fall. The realization he has come to, he says, is that “the news” — broadly speaking — needs to be subsidized, cheap and free.

But how can it be all these things at once? And by subsidized, does Shirky mean government subsidies, as some have recommended? As it turns out, he doesn’t. In many cases, he says, those subsidies may come from other lines of business (conferences, etc.), from donations — as with ProPublica and some other models such as the Guardian, which is supported by a trust fund — and from simple cost-cutting.

And what about the free part? Although Shirky doesn’t specifically deal with the idea of paywalls (an issue he has been skeptical about for some time), he makes the point that the news “needs to be free so that it will spread” — in other words, so that people will share it and distribute it in a variety of ways for nothing. And what about those media entities that decide to produce only what people will pay for directly, like Rupert Murdoch has done with the Times of London?

[C]reating a high-quality product for a group of loyal and passionate readers willing to pay for it certainly sounds like an interesting business to get into. It just doesn’t sound like the newspaper business.

As Shirky points out, the cost-cutting that makes the news cheap doesn’t just have to come from layoffs (of the kind that Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger referred to in his recent announcement of a “digital first” approach for the paper). Costs can also be reduced by using a variety of crowdsourcing tools and services to let readers and other interested individuals share the burden of producing the news, whether it’s through blogs or photo galleries or “citizen journalism” tools such as Tackable (interestingly, Shirky never once mentions AOL’s Patch and its hyper-local efforts).

The bottom line, Shirky seems to be saying, is that this environment of chaos isn’t just obvious or understandable but actually necessary, so that the industry can evolve — whether it wants to or not. In that sense, Shirky’s post strikes a similar note as one he wrote back in 2009 called “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable,” in which he argued that everyone looking for a solution to the media industry’s problems is searching in vain, because there isn’t one. In other words, not only is there no single solution but most of the likely solutions are simply unknown.

That is what real revolutions are like. The old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in its place. The importance of any given experiment isn’t apparent at the moment it appears; big changes stall, small changes spread. Even the revolutionaries can’t predict what will happen.

The problem, as many including Shirky have described it, is that readers have never paid for the news content in newspapers — at best, they have “helped pay for the things that paid for the news.” And now advertisers are going elsewhere, including targeted websites and social networks, because they can reach the people they want directly and more cheaply. The access that newspapers used to control to those desirable readers is gone. And digital advertising may ultimately never fill the gap between the price that advertisers will pay for a print reader and what they will pay for an online one.

The ‘analog dollars to digital dimes’ problem doesn’t actually seem to be a problem. It seems to be a feature of reality. Digital revenue per head is not replacing lost print revenue and, barring some astonishment in the advertising market, it never will.

In general, Shirky’s point seems to be that innovation and experimentation need to happen before anything becomes clear, and he is undoubtedly right on that score. Unfortunately, as I wrote recently, that kind of startup-style impulse is sorely lacking in most mainstream media entities, who are content to incrementally dip their toes into new media tools and projects without really trying too hard. Why do something radical when you can just put out an app and throw up a paywall?

It takes some guts for a media analyst and pundit to admit that he doesn’t have all the answers or solutions for the industry, but Shirky has always been better at that than some others of his ilk. And he does at least provide some hints about what he thinks will help while we figure out the answers — things like cost-cutting and crowdsourcing, for example, and just all-around experimentation. What is really required, of course, is a rethinking of what being a news organization means in an age when real-time publishing is available to anyone. But unfortunately, there is still far too little of that happening.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Mark Strozier

20 Responses to “Why the chaos in media might be a good thing”

  1. Jack C

    I think that a viable solution is buried in the problem. Three blind men touching an elephant may not be able to arrive upon the truth, but I’d wager that curating the reports of 100,000 blind men touching an elephant would. We can (likely) find genuine content in the patterns of noise, we just need new tools to find the patterns.

  2. Mathew, if you’re right – and it appears likely that you are – then the reason most mainstream media don’t do more than “just put out an app and throw up a paywall” seems to be that they aren’t willing to accept reality.

  3. Thanks for the conventional thinking from 2003 here. Big media is doing fine again. It’s actually the Patch-style, “hey ma look I’m a journalist!” types of “hyper local” news sites that are going away.

  4. I wonder if town criers held crisis summits about Gutenberg’s disruptive technology. Journalism erupted out of their demise, and if journalism continues as the best solution to keeping us all informed then I am sure that it will persist. If it’s not then it will evolve or fade away.

    The troubles faced by newspapers (and indeed broadcast TV) are very interesting. The data isn’t all in yet and so any analysis is incomplete. But one thing is clear, newspapers are included along with banks, politicians and corporates in the list of institutions we no longer trust.

    My own interim solution is to follow directly the writers who inform, educate and entertain me. is made up from the individual agendas of its contributors, largely journalists, and it gives me news and analyses in, what I hope to be, a statistically balanced way. I am constantly adding new sources to ensure I remain challenged.

    A by product of this approach is my other daily, which is made from the signals of those whom I believe to be best informed about my industry. It provides me with current news and information far faster than any magazine.

    What I have learned is that I can build a system by which relevant news finds me. I am not overwhelmed with irrelevant (to me) sports results, but get exactly what matters to me as well as being challenged to review my prejudices. I am not at risk of manipulation by an editorial agenda. And it’s free, but I don’t expect this happy state of affairs to continue. I’m getting the tune but the piper is largely unpaid.

    A famous boatbuilder was once asked how he had created a small fortune from boat building, he replied that he’d started with a large one. His company stopped building boats long ago – it’s now a marina. Maybe there is hope that the Murdoch empire will be reduced to an occasional Tweet one day.

  5. thr1xp

    I’d disagree with the notion that innovation/disruption is a good thing for the industry. While it is nice to see media companies experiment with different ways of distributing their content, the general upheaval in the industry has caused a noticeable decline in the quality of content. In other industries, innovation/disruption is usually a good thing as it improves quality. Media however is different. While in the end, consumers may end up with more options as to how they wish to consume media, the quality of that media will decline as companies in particular newspapers do not have the financial resources they once had.

  6. times are changing… today, some guy in his bedroom can generate more traffic than a 15 people back with funding company. Why shall I pay a certain newspaper for an ad space a CPL, when I can pay CPA for someone who can sell my products? You tell me…

  7. times are changing… today, some guy in his bedroom can generate more traffic than a 15 people back with funding company. Why shall I pay a certain newspaper for an ad space a CPL, when I can pay CPA for someone who can sell my products? You tell me…

  8. Atif waqar

    Good article….I think the solution is here is well…

    We are heading towards a time where people have less time to read, so solution is to transform the media industry into something that fuels innovation, leadership, energy and enthusiasm through positive solutions oriented news that are filled with positive energy and drive.

    As for financial aspect, once the above is achieved, news on each Market will come from businesses that are thriving and assumably will be interested to spend spare cash on messages and media publicity through publications specialising in their specific niche markets, like Where brands pay big to be part of succesful movies watched by millions with spending power.

    All the best

  9. Mathew, One point I don’t see many people addressing is not only the overabundance of content, but the lack of diversity in that content.

    I’m 53 (aieee…) and when I was a kid there were 3 networks, 2 daily papers and various weekly and monthly magazines. If you followed the news would thus had 5 choices for local news (3 TV and 2 papers) and you got the news when THEY delivered it. National news? 3 network news programs. In depth analysis? Usually the Sunday paper or weekly magazines like Time or Newsweek. Special interests? Monthly magazines.

    My point is that a lot of the people running news organizations grew up in similar environments and still seem to assume that their news program is the sole source of someone’s news so the national media all repeat the same handful of stories, the local sources repeat national and world events that aren’t remotely local, and none of them ask who the heck their market is and what their focus really should be.

    My local news should be the best source of news about where I live. Cover larger stories if they have direct, relatable effects locally. Drop world and national news entirely unless there’s something HUGE happening. Local papers should dig deeply into issues around the region and provide depth that the TV stations can’t because of time restrictions. National news should skip wasting time telling me what the stock market did – anyone remotely concerned with that will have that information.

    None of this is to push aside operational issues like choosing more efficient CMSes etc, but those are playing at the edge. The real questions every news organization needs to ask itself are “Why do we exist? Why should anyone pay any attention to us given the hundreds of sources of information out there?”

  10. Good stuff, and yes innovation/disruption is a good thing. However I’d contend it’s not really quite as mysterious as all that. See here:

    “A lot of themes that I’ve hit upon over the past several months, the most important being complete and utter Content Overabundance. Only now are newspaper publishers (slowly, many of them probably too slowly) waking up to the fact that on the Web, tons of options exist for both news content, and all other content in general. Oops.

 newspapers have struggled to recreate the kind of loyal relationship
 with readers that they had in print.”

    You don’t say. I guess that those readers weren’t quite so loyal after all, sounds like it was more about lack of choices in localized monopolies, and false, news-mogul-y feelings of information omnipotence…

    Here’s what still has a chance of working: …”