Some Patterns in the Chaos

Chaos is indeed journalism’s lot, as Professor Shirky observes. However, some salient trends are visible, and there is no harm in extrapolating from them — not to predict the future, but to help us prepare for what Herman Kahn called “surprise-free scenarios.” Here are five trends that can impose some order on the chaos.

The marketplace is calling for ever more specialized information. This trend was well established in the second half of the 20th century, and the Internet greatly accelerated it. The opening of new channels for information frees suppliers from the need for economies of scale, a feature of the industrial age, and enables more specialized products aimed at smaller groups of consumers, a feature of the information age. This trend away from mass audiences was recognized in a seminal 1966 paper by Richard Maisel, who noted even then that monthly magazines were doing relatively better than weekly magazines and community newspapers better than metropolitan papers. A current example would be the Economist, which aims at public policy junkies. It is doing much better than Time, whose editors still strive for the mass audience. The theoretical possibilities for the Internet to extend the intensity of information specialization are, of course, endless.

The second trend is moving journalism from a hunter-gatherer activity to one more focused on processing. It parallels what happened to food when agriculture moved from family farms to large-scale corporate farming. Food became cheaper and more plentiful, giving us the luxury of choosing among a greater variety of possible forms. In 1983, the balance in the Gross Domestic Product tipped to favor food manufacturing over agriculture for the first time in our history.

In the information marketplace, the need for processing is increasing at two levels: in the production stage where analysis and interpretation help readers or listeners make sense of the oversupply of data, and in the transmission stage where information is packaged for ready retrieval by the specialized subsets of the audiences that want it. The initial success of USA TODAY can be attributed to its intense editing and formatting for time-starved readers. Of late, unfortunately, the newspaper industry has been cutting back on editing and further locking itself into the downward spiral.

As citizen journalism makes the hunter-gatherer aspect of journalism less valuable, we are starting to place more value on evidence-based versus source-based journalism. That’s the third trend. Source-based journalism depends on subtle market transactions between reporters and sources where each gives up something to attain a common goal. The sources want to control the flow of information to help their causes and make themselves look good. The journalists want to beat their competitors to the story. Evidence-based journalism, in contrast, works directly from documents and direct observation, with interested parties having less opportunity to spin the interpretation. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were classic examples of source-based reporting. Don Barlett and James Steele of Vanity Fair represent the other end of the spectrum. Their work follows paper trails, and it can be replicated. The problem, of course, is that evidence-based journalism takes longer and is more expensive because it requires special tools such as data mining and statistical analysis. It gives some urgency to Shirky’s question of who will do it and who will pay.

Dividing journalism into subcategories of specialists has already started a fourth trend: increasing the number of certification programs for journalists. When Shirky says that journalists are not certified, he overlooks the obvious. A journalism degree has become de facto certification for entry-level journalists. Eighty-five percent of new hires at newspapers and 92 percent of those at television news departments had journalism degrees in a 2005 survey by University of Georgia faculty.

The increasing activity of citizen journalists has spurred the creation of new ways of credentialing. OhmyNews, the world leader in citizen journalism, remodeled a rural school 90 minutes from Seoul and started the OhmyNews Citizen Journalism School. In the United States, The Society of Professional Journalists has created a one-day training program for citizen journalists. The Community Media Workshop at Columbia College in Chicago has brief training programs for citizen journalists, and Columbia University has created an online certification program for high school students to qualify them to report for Pearl World Youth News, an international service for high school papers created to honor the murdered journalist Daniel Pearl. In a world where everyone can be a journalist, the need to distinguish the professionals from the amateurs — and to define the different levels and specialties — becomes essential.

And who will pay for all of this? The fifth trend is giving us a clue. Chaos stimulates entrepreneurship. In the northeast, investors in Patch Media are hoping to make money from advertiser-supported community journalism with a blend of professionals and citizen journalists. (You can check it out at patch.com. I’m a member of the editorial advisory board.) As of this week, it had five communities on line and four more under development. There are also efforts from a growing number of nonprofit and charitable organizations that try to fill the need for investigative reporting. The model is the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity, founded by former TV journalist Charles Lewis in 1989 after he became frustrated by a sense that too many scandals were being ignored. Lewis has since moved to American University, where he runs the Investigative Reporting Workshop in the School of Communication.

Sustaining these non-profit ventures might be difficult. But Shirky is right when he says the leverage for motivations other than profit is growing rather than shrinking. The low entry costs of the Internet guarantee that. Foundations like to leverage their grants, putting their money where it is most likely to move the world a little. Because knowledge is equated with power, journalism has long benefited from foundation largess, and the visible failure of journalism’s traditional business model is stimulating even more participation. The bad news about foundations is that they like to keep trying newer things. So they prefer projects that have a chance of eventually standing on their own. The Center for Public Integrity survives because its CEOs have been willing to spend time shaking the money tree. And OhmyNews, which made money on advertising until the present global financial crisis, is trying to switch to a donor-supported model.

And now to risk a prediction: when the history of 21st century journalism is written, it will not look chaotic at all. Natural selection will have separated winners from losers, and, as Steve Jobs has said, connecting the dots is easy when you finally can look back. Meanwhile, we should all cheer for the innovators as they come along — no matter how crazy they might seem. The more things that are tried, the sooner we’ll learn what works.

Also from This Issue

Lead Essay

  • Not an Upgrade — an Upheaval by Clay Shirky

    In his lead essay, Clay Shirky argues that the old models of journalism are broken primarily because in today’s online environment, self-created publics can parse the news however they like. The biggest failure of journalism in the online age is the failure to reproduce the front page – the news that everyone saw together and first. Today, individuals who want specialized or even personalized news can get it instantly. Readership has become impossible to control.

    In this massive upheaval, one thing that may be at risk is the provision of “serious” journalism – news stories about the city council, or about events on the other side of the globe. These stories aren’t being subsidized anymore, as they had been in the past, by getting bundled in with coupons and stories about sports. To provide serious journalism, new forms of patronage may be necessary, and Shirky’s essay concludes with a brief look at some models that may work. Yet no upheaval of this magnitude is really predictable, and the future will probably surprise us all.

Response Essays

  • 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.

The Conversation