Clay Shirky doesn’t take issue with that. But he suggests that Demand could get into trouble if faced with a competitor that produced slightly better content at the same price. And Demand’s business model has an endemic problem. As long as people can type inquiries into search engines that go unmet, Demand has room to grow. But what happens when we get to the end of the tail? Not every question can be profitably answered. “At a certain point,” Shirky says, “the time-value of money suggests a limit. What I don’t know is, is that limit reached in two years, twenty years, or fifty years?”
He has a few ideas about the vitriol accompanying much news coverage of Demand. It’s hard for journalists to watch outsiders doing what they alone used to do. It’s worrisome to see important news go unreported. Most of all, though, Demand’s very existence is incontrovertible evidence that someone has found a way to take advantage of the way the web works, and it is not journalists or the people they work for. The companies that come after Demand, with refined algorithms and better search data and content, will suck advertising from news outlets. Market forces will sever the link between advertising and news that, for more than a century, gave us jobs and the resources to do them well. “If commoditization can do well,” Shirky says, “it really is a revolution, not just an adjustment.”
I didn’t need him to tell me that—my own proof came with unemployment benefits, more than a year ago.
One night not long ago, I e-mailed some of my recent stories to Heidi Carr, my boss for most of my eight Herald years. I waited twenty minutes and called her. Would these stories get me a newspaper job? Based on them, would she hire me back, if it were in her power?
Heidi always had trouble saying hard things, and she paused now. “No,” she said, after a while. “I don’t see any real reporting here. I don’t see anything.”