Why the chaos in media might be a good thing

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