Not an Upgrade — an Upheaval

The hard truth about the future of journalism is that nobody knows for sure what will happen; the current system is so brittle, and the alternatives are so speculative, that there’s no hope for a simple and orderly transition from State A to State B. Chaos is our lot; the best we can do is identify the various forces at work shaping various possible futures. Two of the most important are the changing natures of the public, and of subsidy.

As Paul Starr, the great sociologist of media, has often noted, journalism isn’t just about uncovering facts and framing stories; it’s also about assembling a public to read and react to those stories. A public is not merely an audience. For a TV show with an audience of a million, no one cares whether it’s the same million every week — head count rules. A public, by contrast, is a group of people who not only know things, but know other members of the public know those things as well. Both persistence and synchrony matter, because journalism is about more than dissemination of news; it’s about the creation of shared awareness.

Consider, as an illustration, the difference between assembling a public for a newspaper, and for stories on that paper’s website. The publisher assembled the public for the paper, maintaining subscribers lists and distribution chains, and got to decide what front-page news was for those readers. This was a bottleneck of value that used to be enforced by the limitations of print and distribution, and by lack of competition for sources of written news.

On the website, however, the stories are the same, but assembling various publics is different. The home page doesn’t serve the function the front page used to; for many papers, less than half the traffic even sees the home page. Instead, people who care about gay marriage, say, will pass around the relevant articles in email, IM, or twitter, whether those stories are on page A1 or B17, whether the paper is published in Anchorage or Miami. Online, it is the relevant networked publics, not the editorial board, who determine much of what gets read.

The logic of the Internet, a medium that is natively good at helping groups communicate at vanishingly low cost, is that the act of forming a public has become something the public is increasingly doing for itself, rather than needing to wait for a publication (note the root) to do it for them. More publics will form, they will be smaller, shorter-lived, and less geographically contiguous, and they will overlap more than the previous era’s larger, more rooted, more stable publics.

Which brings us to the changes in subsidy. Journalism written for that fraction of the population that follows the news closely has always been subsidized. For the last century, newspaper journalism had direct subsidy from advertisement and cross-subsidy from sports fans and coupon clippers who never really cared about the city council or the coup in Madagascar. The packages containing news have been so bundled and cross-funded that we’ve never really known precisely the size of the audience for actual civic-minded reporting, or how much direct fees from that audience would amount to. We do know, however, that the rough answers are “Small” and “Not much,” answers that suggest radical transformation, now that the media environment in which those subsidies flourished is gone.

We can expect changes in journalism to be linked to changes in subsidy. There are many shifts coming, but three big ones are an increase in direct participation; an increase in the leverage of the professionals working alongside the amateurs; and a second great age of patronage.

Participation first. Various self-assembled publics can increasingly engage in acts of journalism on their own. The functions of gathering readers, and providing analysis and opinion, are already moving from professional organizations directly into these overlapping publics, and increasingly, the basic act of reporting — of observing and then relaying — is as well. All of this represents a massive supply-side subsidy to the volume and variety of raw reporting.

Since the 7/7 London Transport bombings, we’ve gotten used to the first photos of an event coming from amateurs who were on site, rather than from photojournalists sent after the fact. Off the Bus, a journalistic effort that worked in partnership with the Huffington Post, used groups of citizens to offer coverage of events like the Iowa caucus by blanketing the state with hundreds of observers out for a couple of hours each, something no one could afford to hire professionals to do. (Amanda Michel of Off the Bus is now pursuing additional extensions to this model for ProPublica.org) And much of the documentation of the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 or the Iranian vote protests of June came from the participants. Events are documented and relayed by their participants, as they are happening.

However, there are still only twenty-four hours in a day, and as anyone who’s tried direct access knows, there’s always a sizable portion of teh crazy in any raw feed. This leads to the second change in subsidy: high leverage in having a small number of professionals vet, edit, and shape that raw material. Off the Bus didn’t just publish the raw observations of its amateur participants; they had a paid staff turn that material into something more suited to wide dissemination. However, the total paid staff was never larger than five, and ratio of amateurs to professionals came to exceed 1000:1.

Similarly, William Bastone and his staff at the Smoking Gun have moved from shoe leather to database queries in uncovering news; here the leverage is not professionals and amateurs but professionals and machines. The ability to get out of the “phone call” model of reporting — one paid journalist talking to one source at a time — and to instead bring in everything the internet has taught us about automation, syndication, parallel effort, and decentralization will increasingly characterize successful new models of journalism.

Finally, there’s patronage, either of the “one rich person” model, as with Richard Mellon Scaife’s subsidy of conservative journals, or the NPR Fund Drive model, where the small core of highly involved users makes above-market-price donations to provision a universally accessible good run for revenue but not for profit. These models have always existed alongside the for-profit press, but they were always viewed as oddities, their ability to continue to function being regarded more as a kind of perverse outcome than evidence of continued viability.

In an age where the cost of making things public has fallen precipitously, patronage models suddenly look not just viable but eminently reproducible. The leverage to be gotten from motivations other than profit is now growing rather than shrinking; a poorly capitalized journalistic weblog is now likelier to reach a million readers than a well-funded but traditional journalistic outfit is.

Because journalism has always been subsidized, and because the public can increasingly get involved in activities too complex for loose groups to take on before the current era, journalism is seeping into the population at large, with the models of subsidy being altered to fit that shift. The transition here is like the spread of the ability to drive, from paid chauffeurs to the whole population. We still pay people to drive, from buses to race cars, and there are more paid drivers today than there were in the days of the chauffeur. Paid drivers are, however, no longer the majority of all drivers.

Like driving, journalism is not a profession — no degree or certification is required to practice it, and training often comes after hiring — and it is increasingly being transformed into an activity, open to all, sometimes done well, sometimes badly, but at a volume that simply cannot be supported by a small group of full-time workers. The journalistic models that will excel in the next few years will rely on new forms of creation, some of which will be done by professionals, some by amateurs, some by crowds, and some by machines.

This will not replace the older forms journalism, but then nothing else will either; both preservation and simple replacement are off the table. The change we’re living through isn’t an upgrade, it’s a upheaval, and it will be decades before anyone can really sort out the value of what’s been lost versus what’s been gained. In the meantime, the changes in self-assembling publics and new models of subsidy will drive journalistic experimentation in ways that surprise us all.

Also from This Issue

Response Essays

  • Some Patterns in the Chaos by Philip Meyer

    In his response essay, Philip Meyer argues that while newspapers may be in financial trouble, journalism is on the move. In particular, citizen journalism, done by individuals who may have other careers or life paths outside of full-time journalism, is a key trend for the future. Certification for these journalists – whether through reputation metrics or through a formal certification process – will become increasingly important. Evidence-based journalism, specialty niche journalism, and journalism done through philanthropic foundations are some of the other key trends that are accompanying the decline of the generalist newspapers that dominated the twentieth century. Evidence-based journalism is more open to ordinary citizens, who may not have the contacts of traditional newspaper reporters. Niche journalism had a hard time finding an outlet in the old days. And, although the prospect may be unsettling, philanthropy is increasingly an important source of funding for these projects.

  • The Public May Need to Subsidize Itself by Paul Starr

    Paul Starr agrees with much of Clay Shirky’s lead essay, but he is not optimistic about the power of the public to self-organize. He argues that law, politics, and the unequal fortunes of people in society will all influence the process, and that this means that if we want responsible public-service journalism, we will likely have to subsidize it in a viewpoint- and platform-neutral manner, perhaps with tax exemptions.

  • Abandon Old Strategies to Survive in a New Era by Steve Yelvington

    Steve Yelvington argues that much of the hype about the death of the newspaper business is simply the product of journalistic myopia, in two different forms: First, the news business as a whole made a series of bad business decisions that left it ill-prepared for the information age. And second, the effects of these decisions are all too apparent to reporters, who see them up close in their professional lives. Yet let’s be skeptical of the claim that the newspaper is dying, he says: We are in the middle of a very serious recession, and many other industries are also suffering. No one, however, suggests that we will stop banking, say, or driving cars. Tax breaks, subsidies, bailouts, and laws forbidding hyperlinks to copyrighted content are not only unnecessary – they are harmful, because they will prevent the news industry from developing the new strategies it desperately needs.

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