"There is no news industry"

Clay Shirky has been at the forefront of thinking about the future of journalism for the better part of a decade. He sat down with Martin Eiermann to discuss institutional inertia, censorship in the App Store, and what it means to be a journalist in 2013.

The European: In a recent report you co-authored with C.W. Anderson and Emily Bell you make the case that the biggest threat to journalism doesn’t come from declining revenues but from professional inertia. Why?
Shirky: We want to say that the future of news isn’t just about finding new sources of revenue. If every newspaper in this country could restore its 2005 revenues, which were the highest in the history of the newspaper business, those institutions would not close but they would still get transformed. The last years have undermined the ad subsidy that was baked into the news business for several decades, but they have also transformed the professional discipline. Journalists at any publication with a daily heartbeat used to stand between the public and the larger world and mediated how the public understood the world.

The famous “first draft of history.”
Exactly. That function has broken and journalists have been plunged into a serious moment of self-definitional doubt as members of a professional class. What does it mean to call yourself a journalist today? In the United States, it would be illegal for journalists to be an actual professional class like doctors or lawyers that required a license to practice. The First Amendment makes it clear that any attempt to regulate journalism like that would not only be illegal but unconstitutional.

And yet journalists have adopted most of the habits of a professional group, with press cards, with annual dinners, and with a national union at least in the United Kingdom.
We have witnessed the rise of a fairly insular group of people who regard one another’s judgements about their work as a counterweight to public opinion. Journalists are now somewhere between depressed and mad that the central tenets of that professional self-definition are heavily challenged. If the public can speak directly to one another in large groups and with high visibility, then the self-definition of a journalist as a privileged translator takes a big hit. If you think of yourself as a member of the only class allowed to find and explain information, you find yourself in a very uncomfortable position.

Many journalists are quite aware that their role might be changing…
My co-author C.W. Anderson has spent a lot of times in the Philadelphia newsrooms as an ethnographer. Philadelphia is an old and competitive newspaper town and Chris happened to be there during the years of the collapse. The thing he said that really changed my vision was this: If you go to the “Philadelphia Inquirer”, take an editor out of the newsroom and put them into a conference setting, they can talk about the future of news as well as anybody. But the minute you plug them back into the daily production routine, they could not see what to do. They could see the ten-year horizon, they could think strategically, but they could not act tactically. They could not tell a reporter, ‘don’t do this, do that’. They could not say, ‘our routine says that we should have a production meeting at 9 o’clock but we’ll actually cancel it and do things differently’. Nobody could do that. So my point is this: The self-definition of journalists and the daily routines with 9 a.m. production meetings and 4 p.m. front page meetings are so tightly linked that once you start to attack one, you attack all. That’s why adaptation is so hard for established institutions.

About ten years ago, you argued that journalistic reputation largely comes from the audience, and you were quite critical of institutional frameworks. I wonder how your thinking on media institutions has evolved over time?
My thinking has really changed. A dozen years ago I wasn’t institutionally bound. When I discovered the internet, it felt like I had been given a brand new brain. I was working at a theater company at that time and didn’t have to grapple with institutional issues. Almost all of my work was out of personal interest; I just threw myself into the network. A couple of years later I was part of a small and then a large web design agency, but it still wasn’t more than thirty people. We would consult with major and ancient media companies in Manhattan and we would say: “Those stupid people, why don’t they just do everything differently” – because that’s what we had done. When I now think about the time I spent talking to big media companies about the web in the 1990s, that’s ten thousand hours I’ll never get back. It was incredibly difficult to change institutional cultures. The easiest way to get people in institutions to do interesting new things is for that institution to go bankrupt and for those people to change jobs. It’s often more trouble to try and modify existing institutions than it is to start new ones.

We would also stand to lose a lot of things that are good about current institutions, about the resources they command, about the practices they rely on, and about the journalistic muscle they have.
Yes, and it’s a daunting and saddening prospect. I genuinely wanted to see the world’s newspapers and magazines change. I thought: “You’re so good a fact-checking and news-finding, so why don’t you do it in this new way?” But the last three or four years have brought me the recognition that this will not work in many cases, and that it visibly hasn’t worked in many cases.

What about the tendency of big publishing houses to either purchase small and innovative companies – Yahoo bought Summly, the “Boston Globe” or the “New York Times” have used technology that was developed through the “Knight News Challenge” – or to spin off little side projects, like “The Atlantic” did with “Quartz” in recent months?
Buying narrative science or aggregation projects like Summly seems to work well if they can be bought as a service. Anything in the news business that can be commodified will be commodified. The people who cling to the idea that humans are required to rewrite wire service copy are spending money that no longer needs to be spent, and it’s hard to justify that over the long haul. What can also work is spinning out, and giving a great degree of independence to, new projects that aren’t expected to be tightly coupled with the mothership. Clayton Christensen has done a lot of work on this and argues that successful projects of self-disruption almost always have the characteristic of being hidden from the main company. Almost nobody knew for sure that Apple was working on a phone – they ran the iPhone development team as a side project. When IBM wanted to develop the personal computer, they sent people to Florida with the mission to ‘get the hell away from headquarters.’ What sadly does not work is setting up an innovative unit inside the mothership, or smashing together an old company with a new company in the hope that they will transform each other. My co-author Emily Bell talks about a study that examined the effects of merging print and online operations. The net effect was that it slowed both of them down. That’s really depressing.

Because it makes it harder to argue from the perspective of reducing expenditures by creating synergies?
The last great hope for institutional change was to let the web people develop their own culture, and then bring them back into the company almost like a sourdough that helps to ferment innovation. That doesn’t work. You really have to let the people doing outside work be outside.

“If the newspapers of the world throw the Wikileaks of the world overboard, they’re next.”

Bill Keller recently published an op-ed in the “New York Times” in which he commented on the Bradley Manning case and argued that whistleblowers are legally and professionally very different from journalists. The latter are protected by law, the former aren’t. Even if the legal distinction holds, I wonder what that argument says about the challenge to transform not only journalism, but journalists.
This is one of the places where self-perception gets very complicated. As I wrote in 2006 and 2007, although there are legal privileges given to journalists, there is no legal definition of “a journalist”. Interestingly, journalists were often defined as people who worked for publishers. Rather than having a written definition of what constitutes a journalist, the entire question was proxied to ‘who owns the means of production, and who are their employees?’ Any given town had a small number of highly visible publishers who could be enumerated, and nobody ever had to go through the legal exercise of defining a journalist. But today, owning the means of production is equal to owning a telephone or a computer. So that definitional question cannot be proxied to publishers anymore, and we still don’t know what constitutes a journalist. I think Keller is right about the legal liability of people who divulge secrets from within the institutions that employ them. But what’s so interesting about his position is that he long maintained that Wikileaks is not a media organization but a source. It preserved the “Times” sense that what they were doing was somehow different. But I think Keller has recognized that if the newspapers of the world throw the Wikileaks of the world overboard, they’re next.

Why?
There is no way to prosecute Wikileaks for what they did and argue that the prosecution is right and proper without saying that one is happy to participate in the weakening of First Amendment protections for journalists. Keller is one of the most famous old school journalists, and the fact that even he has changed his mind indicated how deep this realization goes.

The reason I mention his article is because you write at length about the scarecrow function of journalism: Just by being there and seeming powerful, news organizations can have a positive effect on politics. And this function in turn is predicated on the idea of institutional muscle. So what happens not only to journalism but to the larger public sphere when that muscle is weakened or transformed into a more crowd-sourced power, like the one we saw during the SOPA protests?
I’ll tell you what the difference is: No newspaper could ever have brought SOPA down. There is no way they could have said that a majority of senators were simply incorrect. In the American tradition of journalism, you can object to individual logic and to individuals, but you could not object to a bill with dozens of co-signers and say that they are all wrong. Furthermore, because the bill was directly connected to the self-interest of newspapers, they were wholly compromised as actors. So the campaign succeeded in part because nobody knew how to factor in our work. But SOPA and PIPA was an event: It was proposed on a particular date and went before Congress on a particular date. The only thing we had to do was to apply enough pressure to alter that event. The internet is fantastic at that. What we could never have done on our own is something like the Catholic abuse scandal. We could never have done what Walter Robinson and the “Boston Globe” spotlight team did in the late 1990s and early 2000s when they unveiled the systematic decisions by the archdiocese of Eastern Massachusetts to move priests around rather than defrock them. The “Globe” was able to destroy once and for all – and worldwide, really – the sense that abuse happened only once and here. And the “Globe” could not have done its work without the willingness of its online readership to take the story and spread it. They had covered an almost equally horrific abuse scandal in the 90s, and nothing happened. But by 2000 and 2001, Walter Robinson said that they got emails from Australia four days later with people asking: ‘Can you send those reporters here, because we think we have the same problem?’ So that combination between a highly competent institution and a highly engaged audience is really what explains it. What worries me is that I don’t think the “Globe” would be able to do a similar investigation today. They have been so reduced in resources and in ambition that we no longer get that hybrid.

Do you really think that decreased resources have reduced journalistic ambitions?
There are two different problems: Journalists want to say: ‘You cannot ask us to do more with less. If we have less, we will do less.’ That is a perfectly comprehensible industrial action strategy. But on the other hand there actually is less because Procter & Gamble and Oreo’s and Levi’s no longer need to rent timeshares on a printing press. This is where the logic of industrialization becomes very clear: Once you realize that you have fewer resources, you try to do journalism with a higher output per worker hour. You’re working with datasets, with algorithms, with crowds, with outside organizations.

Which brings us back to the beginning: The economic shift is inseparable from a cultural shift.
The culture of journalism is still the culture of the individual byline, as it has been for a hundred years. The Pulitzer Prize does not recognize collaborative work; the prize committee wants to recognize one or two individuals. If I could change the Pulitzer to send one institutional signal, I’d want to see a prize for the best collaboration between two institutions, or a prize for a collaboration between people who work inside the newsroom and people who do not. At the moment, the culture of journalism mitigates many of the responses to “doing more with less”.

“Any way to keep expenses below revenues is a good way.”

I want to talk more about the economics of journalism. Your report is virtually silent on what new funding models might look like…
We’re completely silent on that for two reasons. One, a very harmful part of the conversation has focused on what is the solution without defining the problem. Usually, when people ask about solutions, they are really asking: ‘How can we get back all the money that we have lost since 2005?’ We wanted to say: You cannot. Cost-cutting is a forced move for all actors. Nobody wants to hear that message. It’s highly inconvenient for the Columbia Journalism School to say, ‘seventy fat years are over’. The second reason why we ignore the economic discussion is that we have a crazily invidious distinction between for-profit and non-profit business models. You have less of that in Europe; and it’s a strange prejudice. It amounts to saying: ‘There are people on National Public Radio who make their money in a ridiculous fashion by telling listeners that their work matters, while we make our money by selling diapers.’ And you cannot help but wonder: Why is it that the diaper-selling people think of themselves as having the better model? Why is it culturally superior to suck dollars from Procter & Gamble? Yet that’s what they think. Because our for-profit news sector has decided that non-profit news is tantamount to capitulation, we want to say: Any way to keep expenses below revenues is a good way.

So instead of one industry-wide business model – or two models, if you consider ad-funded and donation-funded news organizations – do you see a lot of mix-and-match?
Not every model will work for everyone. There are plenty of ways to save a bit of money or to make a bit of money. But you have to keep expenses below revenues and we have to stop the conversation about restoring the old ways. That’s a distraction from the cultural shift.

But there are clearly better ways of experimenting with revenue streams and worse ways. Selling advertorials to Scientology without proper labeling – not a great idea…
Yes, that’s absolutely right.

… and you are quite explicit that the logic of market-funded journalism has its limits, so I wonder whether your position is actually more explicit that you make it sound.
There’s no question that the market can never supply as much journalism as democracy demands. We happened to have found a subsidy that worked well for several decades – it worked so well that journalists convinced themselves that it wasn’t a subsidy – but to be frank, advertisers don’t care about whether their money keeps the Washington Bureau open. They wanted full-page ads, and publishers happened to offer a convenient way of doing that. The great thing about the ad model was that advertisers barely ever cared about the news. Every now and again you’d do something that they didn’t like, but in 99 percent of cases, the logic was: ‘Just print the pizza ad right side up and I don’t care what’s printed next to it.’ But to get back to the Scientology ad: Clearly that was a mistake by “The Atlantic”. But the really unforgivable part of that behavior was when they censored user comments. You could have said: ‘Look, advertisers can now publish on the same platform, just as on TV or on radio.’ What you cannot do is give advertisers the right to censor subscribers and users. That was a huge, catastrophic breach of the Chinese Wall between editors and advertisers. But even with that catastrophic choice, you cannot say that advertorials are always bad. If the ACLU – in some alternative universe – had wanted to run sponsored content or advertorials, nobody would have blinked.

So you’re saying: Context matters not just on the content side but also on the business side?
You get a lot of people saying that their model is the best and that everyone else has got it wrong. Or they are unwilling to admit what exactly their business model is. Take Paul Carr – I disagree with much of the content of his work, but he’s just a brilliant writer: He never says that nsfwcorp is bankrolled by Tony Hsieh. He doesn’t go out and say, ‘my organization works because a millionaire thinks I’m great and other newspapers cannot necessarily replicate that.’ What works for a small new organization in Floyd, Virginia is different from what works for a regional paper, which is different from what works for the “Washington Post”, which is different from what works for the “Texas Tribune”.

The unifying business model is lost.
The opening paragraph of our report says that there is no such thing as a news industry. That’s not a prediction either: The days when you could point to anything in this country and call it “the news industry” are already in the rearview mirror.

“They get upset. They are conservatives.”

I think this is where we can make a connection between the publishing side of journalism and the editorial side: We’ve talked about the path dependence of workflows, and I wonder whether there’s a similar need to take a concrete stance on business plans and to say: You’re clinging to a unified publishing and funding model that won’t work for everyone anymore, and here are a few things to consider as you experiment.
I’m absolutely sure that path dependence is an issue on the publishing side. Look at “RandomHouse”: They opened their slush pile to amateurs, to citizens, and said: ‘99 out of a hundred things you’ll find there are crap, but we should have published one out of a hundred. It’s too expensive to pay for professionals to find that one submission, so you guys can dig through it and flag things for us.’ But if that’s your logic for the slush pile, why not reconsider the structure of publishing as a whole? That would be the ultimate conclusion. Or look at news publishers: For a while they thought they could make money off PDFs, but if you’re comfortable with reading a PDF on a computer screen, you’re comfortable with reading a website. Then they went for the iPad, but that also didn’t really change the nature of their publishing. Funnily enough, the book industry is farther ahead and is probably more willing to try some things that should be tried, like direct publishing to audiences without intermediaries.

It’s an uncertain world out there, at least if you’re perched at the top of a publishing house.
Everyone always presents the past as orderly and the future as chaotic. But the exact same debates came up when radio was first introduced, and then again when television was introduced: The previous Cambrian die-off of newspapers came when TV pioneered the evening news and people went home to watch TV rather than buy an evening paper. So the people who are confused about the multiplicity of platforms are the people who aren’t used to multiple platforms. People who wrongly believed that the way the world happened to be reflected how the world really was at a deep level, they get upset. But they always get upset anyways; they are conservatives. Young people aren’t confused at all.

Do you think there’s a generational media literacy gap?
I have been teaching social media for a dozen years. When I started, I was almost the same age as some of my students. We were all dealing with the same network at the same time; we were culturally alike. I’ve now aged and I have also started to teach undergraduates, so I’m now more than twice the age as some of my students, and I have to explain to them why some of the old people are freaking out. They have no understanding of those concerns. What they do have is an intuitive understanding of what a practical preference for freedom would mean in their own lives: Which phone allows me to do more? Which platform? The places where we should really worry are places with bottlenecks that lack alternatives. Iran before the revolution had only a handful of network carriers. Google now has a de-facto monopoly on search. Facebook has monopolized the social graph. Lack of choice can prevent consumer preference for freedom from expressing itself.

You write that any journalist who uses Apple products should be aware that Apple has embraced a philosophy of ‘walled gardens’ that contributes to online censorship. Do you think the narrative about gradual encroachment by large corporations on the free and open internet holds up?
I don’t think there’s any way to look at the current internet and see that not happening. There are two ways to pursue walled gardens: One is to own a resource that people treat as a utility – that’s Facebook –, the other is to own a resource that you control from end to end – that’s Apple. Apple has never done well in the open network, but they have done well when they have owned both ends of the communication: Here is the iPhone, and there is the network. Here is the iPod, and there is the iTunes store. Do I think journalists should worry? Absolutely. The one bit of new information that I wasn’t expecting at all when we worked on our report was when someone asked: “Tell me about your content management system.” And people would just explode in rage and fury. The conversation would immediately shift from vague notions to: “Oh my God, I hate that thing to much, I want to do X or Y but I cannot do it.” I think that argument can be extended to the internet as a whole: I don’t care how good your CMS or your platform is, but you always have to run at least one experiment that doesn’t rely on it. Never imagine that you’ll be able to get all your processes bundled into one thing. It prevents streamlined processes and it also excludes certain innovative approaches.

In other words: Use large platforms, but keep them at arm’s length?
I had a student who built an app that would ping you every done a military drone killed someone. It would simply beep, tell you what happened, and show you on a map where it happened. Apple rejected it three times, and every time it was rejected, Josh went back and re-wrote it. Finally, they came back and said, ‘we simply don’t like stuff around drones in the App Store’. That’s pure content censorship. If journalists don’t care about that, they’re not really journalists but hacks. That doesn’t mean that you can never touch an Apple machine: I have several, but my phone is Android. I won’t make all my devices reliant on one platform. So the question is not about purity and impurity but about user preference.

Are you generally optimistic or pessimistic about the direction we’re heading into? For example, I wonder whether we have adequate legal structures to protect user preference.
We absolutely do not have adequate legal structures. That’s the core of the issue. But the times are ending when companies could virtually gather any data and do anything they wanted online. When Facebook started getting really big, I said: Regulation is coming, and it’s coming from Germany. That’s where the historical enormity of state oversight over the lives of citizens is still in recent memory, or the memory of citizens spying on other citizens. Germans weren’t going to stand for that. Regulation probably won’t go as far as I’d like to see it, but it’s coming. The more general argument about optimism and pessimism would probably hinge on something like platform choice. As long as two platforms are relatively equal, people will choose the free one. AOL famously bet that people preferred the groomed experience over the open internet. It turns out they were wrong; the bulk of people was willing to wade a bit into the open internet and at least get their ankles wet.

Edited for length and clarity.

Did you like the conversation? Read one with Maria Popova: “Literature is the original Internet”

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