What Shirky, a New York University lecturer and consultant, has brought to the newspaper industry, if nothing else, is a salutatory sense of urgency. Essentially: wake the fuck up. In revolutionary times, Shirky reminds us in a widely quoted 2009 essay on newspapers’ predicament, it is the radicals who are rational, while the voices of caution are, in fact, mad:

Inside the papers, the pragmatists were the ones simply looking out the window and noticing that the real world increasingly resembled the unthinkable scenario. These people were treated as if they were barking mad. Meanwhile the people spinning visions of popular walled gardens and enthusiastic micropayment adoption, visions unsupported by reality, were regarded not as charlatans but saviors.

Like Jarvis, Shirky is a leading proponent of the idea that we are passing through a watershed, not just for our generation or era, but for all of human history. This is the idea of the “Gutenberg parenthesis,” coined by a Danish scholar, that holds that the Internet has the potential to revolutionize human social life to a degree that we cannot now understand, just as Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press paved the way for, eventually, modernity itself.

Shirky argues that our conventional views of work and incentives won’t hold in a new era when the costs of collaboration and sharing are so low. People can, and always have, come together for many reasons. For example, he compares Wikipedia to the Shinto shrine in Ise, Japan, which is periodically torn down and rebuilt by local priests (and whose work, like many Internet toilers, is not recognized by established authority, in this case, UNESCO). “It exists not as an edifice, but as an act of love,” he says. “Wikipedia exists because enough people love it and, more important, love one another in its context.”

In some ways, Shirky is the most subtle and careful member of the FON crew. Many of Shirky’s prescriptions for the economics of journalism are commonsensical and even wise. A point I find inarguable is that while some news models have been found to work in some contexts-—The Wall Street Journal’s pay wall, ProPublica’s fund-raising model (basically, one big donor), Talking Points Memo’s online ad-based system—nothing to date is scalable. There is no news business “model” at all. And who can argue with his call for constant experimentation? “If the old model is broken, what will work in its place?” he asks rhetorically. “The answer is: Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments. . . .”

If that last bit sounds a bit pat, another aspect of the FON debate is that ideas—even a lack of certainty—are expressed with absolute certitude. In 2010, Shirky discussed the confidence factor in a post mulling whether women “have what it takes to behave like arrogant self-aggrandizing jerks.” He recalls a turning point in his own youth when he bluffed about his drafting skills to the head of a graduate design program he was applying to: “That’s the kind of behavior I mean. I sat in the office of someone I admired and feared, someone who was the gatekeeper for something I wanted, and I lied to his face.”

Of course we know what he means, and it’s not about lying. But in FON debates, a little confidence goes a long way.

Which brings us to Jarvis. The head of the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at CUNY’s Graduate School of Journalism, Jarvis leads by example. Like other FON thinkers, he lives the contradiction of extolling peer production and volunteerism from the security of an institution. It is doubly jarring in Jarvis’s case; an opponent of publicly funded journalism, his journalistic entrepreneurialism is, in fact, publicly subsidized. The “C” in CUNY stands for “City.”


Entrepreneurialism, certainly, is manifest in his many consulting gigs (The Guardian Media Group, The New York Times Company), speaking engagements (Edelman, Hearst, Hill & Knowlton), and self-promotional flair. He is a master of the buzzword—“googlejuice,” “generation G”—and the catchphrase—“customers are now in charge . . . the mass market is dead, replaced by the mass of niches . . . we have shifted from an economy based on scarcity to one based on abundance… small is the new big.”

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014).

Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.