Interview with Clay Shirky, Part II

"Newspapers have discovered civic function awfully late to be taken seriously"
December 22, 2008

Clay Shirky teaches at the Interactive Telecommunications program at New York University and is the author, most recently, of Here Comes Everybody, about how new means of communication are changing the social environment. CJR‘s Russ Juskalian recently spoke with Shirky about knowledge, the Internet, and why we shouldn’t worry about information overload. The first part of the interview can be found here.

Russ Juskalian: Well, this kind of brings me to something. We’ve heard all the consequences of what will happen because of information overload or attention spans. But, when you were talking about the last couple of things, I started wondering. Can you think of any of the consequences that would come about as a result of trying to stem the so-called information overload, or trying to slow down all of these things as they come?

Clay Shirky: So, there’s two different possibilities here. Stemming the information overload is this ridiculous Luddite fantasy of somehow, you know, making all those bloggers shut up so that there’s not so much stuff to read. You know, going back to the day when one could have said that you had read or watched the news, as if there was exactly one hour of news per day. I mean it’s just, you know… even, as an experiment, if you said “I’m going to only read the RSS feeds of news sources that existed prior to 1990,” you would still be drowning in it, because you can get to every English language newspaper in the world. So even if you just dealt with the fact that all this production is now global—forget any new entrants, forget amateurs at all—access to professional information is now so far in excess of what it was in 1990 that you still have that problem. So I don’t think that there are any rollbacks.

What I do think is potentially quite interesting is all of the work on filtering that says a big part of the value of information is actually downstream from its production. I would like to be reading or talking about what my friends are reading or talking about, or my colleagues are reading or talking about, or my competitors are reading or talking about. And this rise of social filtering—there’s an interesting phenomenon in the university world, where the number of papers jointly published by two or more researchers working in different institutions is on the rise. And it’s on the rise because it’s very… sitting at your desk, it’s almost easier to figure out, “Who else [in the world] is working on what I’m working on?” than to figure out, “What are my colleagues down the hall working on that isn’t like what I’m working on?” And that idea of information weakening the walls of the institution seems to me to be really beneficial for cross-disciplinary work. I mean, I think the fact that many of the people doing behavioral economics are psychologists is indicative of the kind of cross-disciplinary work we can potentially hope for in the future. So, I think that one of the ways to get around this filter failure problem is—you know, I refuse to use the term ‘information overload’ for obvious reasons—is to start deploying these social filters that assume that at least part of why I want to read or look at something is to be able to have valuable thoughts or conversations in tandem with other people.

And I think that when we start to see those kinds of conversational groups form in the kind of salon culture, particularly in university communities, we will see a potential transformation not of just whole academic institutions but also individual disciplines, where the econo-physics people, the behavioral economics people, and the neo-classical economics people are all now having a conversation that cannot be resolved with reference to only one of those three disciplines. And that potential for saying, “You know what, we’re going to give up on any idea that one can have read the ‘relevant literature’ now,” because a lot of that was just artificial barriers around the filter. And, instead, we’re going to say, “I’m reading the literature that’s keeping the conversation I’m having kind of the most interesting it can be.” That seems to me a potential way out of the current filter failure problem.

RJ: What do you make of all this with regard to the news?

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CS: News is very complicated because the news, in fact, is not a very coherent category. We use the word “news” to describe more than one sort of rough set of things. We use “gossip” to describe another rough set of things. But, in fact, they overlap. And the news used to be defined with reference to news organizations. So, for example, you know, FDR’s polio was kept out of the news. Now, clearly, the information that FDR had polio would have been news had it come up. But because there were few enough news outlets, they could essentially conspire to make it not-news by simply not reporting it. As we know from the Drudge Report during the Monica Lewinsky scandal, those days are gone. And so the news is suffering the same kind of breakdown that I was talking about with behavioral economics and evolutionary psychology, which is the edge case of a group of accredited professionals deciding what becomes news and what doesn’t become news has now been set aside in favor of a much more soft-focus, kind of permeable membrane-oriented way of handling or thinking about the news.

The example I always return to, because I think it’s so emblematic and so crazy, is Alisara Chirapongse, who I’ve written about in Here Comes Everybody. She was blogging under the name gnarlykitty, and she was a fashion-obsessed college student in Bangkok. And so she was blogging about cute shoes and going out dancing, and then there was a coup in Thailand. And so she started blogging about the coup. And Thailand shut down the regular media, but they didn’t shut down Web logs. So she took her little camera out, she took a picture of tanks in front of a government building, and it was one of the first pictures to come out of Thailand during the coup. And so, all of a sudden, she’s committed an act of journalism.

And then a couple of days later she starts blogging about this Hello Kitty phone she’s got, and all the commenters who had come in to read her work were like “No, no, no! Get back to the coup!” And she posted this wonderful post. She said, “Look, this is my blog. This is about things that are happening in my life. One of the things happened in my life is that there has been a coup in my country, but another thing is I just got this new phone! And if you don’t like it, don’t read it.” And there was zero sense of obligation to her audience or journalistic mission or anything. And yet, she was, in those days, one of the earliest producers of real news and information inside post-coup Thailand. So if journalism is going from being a profession to an acitivity, then it all goes on a spectrum. There will be professional journalists, there will be journalists who practice journalism all day long for their jobs. And there’s going to be people like Chirapongse, for whom a single act of journalism may just define how they participate. But at that moment it’s pretty critical. So, I think news organizations are going to have a much harder time making a distinction between what it is they do.

You know, I talked to somebody from—oh, I forget where… actually, it may have been from CJR—for whom the Wall Street Journal was a serious media outlet. And when I pointed out that they run fluff pieces and they run a weekend piece, she kind of wrote that off as if once you’re inside the wall of, you know, the journalistic citadel, it kind of doesn’t matter that you’re doing stuff as fluffy as the average Web blogger. But those distinctions don’t make any sense on the network. And so people will always be interested in information relevant to their current situation. The part of that that’s really hard journalism, like covering the city council or whatever, where it’s long and it’s boring but you got to do it, is going to increasingly have to find new business models, because we can’t just rely on Bloomingdale’s to subsidize that anymore with display ads. And so we’re going to have this move to what I think are going to be a lot more nonprofit models for news, a la NPR. But, much more importantly, the idea that there are news organizations and other kinds of organizations, I think, is just going to break down under the weight of the evidence.

RJ: So are you at all afraid of, you know, a scenario where there’s not as much “serious journalism” going on? Or is that just something that’s a crazy idea?

CS: No, I don’t think it’s a crazy idea at all. When you talk about nightmare scenarios, here’s my nightmare: that for the print journalists, in particular—there’s a great Hemingway quote, I forget who it’s about: “He lost his money the usual way: slowly and then all at once”—that this is the all-at-once year. Right? That for four, maybe five, of the last few years, print ad revenues have been in moderate but monotonic decline. And so everybody’s been sitting around waiting around for it to reverse, and then glumly realizing it won’t reverse. And then wondering how long they have. And then, suddenly, we get this financial meltdown. So my nightmare is that every city with less than a quarter of a million people in it sees its only daily newspaper vanish. And that a good portion of those cities turn to 1950s-style, you know, 1950s New Orleans-style corruption. Which is to say because there’s no one watching, no one will be held accountable. So L.A. will be fine. Chicago will be fine, New York will be fine. You know, you can imagine Wichita just getting hijacked by its own city council. And it will take some time, as it took some time during the print journalism days to move from yellow journalism into some idea of serious reporting that isn’t beholden enough to the powers that be to be swayed. I don’t think that this is an easy transition at all.

But I think that the current newspapers, although they talk civic responsibility, do not seem to be turning themselves into nonprofit business models very quickly, which is what I think it’s going to take. So I think, essentially, to get the right mix of both publicly subsidized—not just in terms of money but also publicly supported in terms of time—journalistic organizations is really going to take a catastrophe. Because I don’t trust the current generation of newspapers to actually mean what they say when they talk about civic mission, because none of them are saying, “We were in a hurry to get out from under this for-profit model that’s preventing us from living up to that civic function.” All they’re really saying is, “If we’re saying ‘civic function’ often enough, somebody ought to throw us a bailout,” which, you know, is no different from what GM is doing, which might be what I did if I were a CEO of a newspaper. But, it’s not, I think, an argument that needs to be taken seriously, because the self-dealing is so evident.

RJ: That’s pretty interesting. I like that kind of interpretation of it; it’s something that I haven’t heard.

CS: Is that right?

RJ: Yeah. It makes a lot of sense that these are businesses coming up with reasons to try and get the public behind them without actually shifting to a non-profit model. That’s pretty interesting.

CS: Yeah, you know, it’s funny. I’ve been having this conversation about what happens to newspapers since 1993, when I met a guy named Gordy Thompson, who may still work at the Times. He did text stuff for the Times, he did Internet stuff for the Times. The people who were part of that conversation are all sitting around stunned that, somehow, in 2008, newspapers have decided that the Internet is going to be a pretty big deal. I feel like I got into the conversation late, because Brad Templeton founded ClariNet in ’88, which is the first really clear, visible, counter-newspaper journalistic model launched in a practical way. And it’s literally twenty years since ClariNet came out. And it wasn’t—I was talking to a friend of mine, a very smart reporter, who said, in 2005, “It was only this year that I realized that we’re in a dying industry.” And I just stared at her, like how could that possibly happen? And she said, “When the dot-com flame out happened, instead of newspapers saying, ‘Huh, we just bought ourselves eighteen months. Right, let’s restructure,’ they all said, ‘Oh good, we were afraid we were going to have to change there for a while.'” But now we see the Internet isn’t actually going to change anything.

And then we spent the next three years not talking about [newspapers’] civic function, but talking about how profitable they were. I think, in fact, 2005 may have been the most profitable year in the Times‘s history. The people now complaining about civic function, you could not find one of them in 2005 who was talking about anything but financial upside for the newspaper industry. So they’ve discovered civic function—and this is why I don’t trust them—they’ve discovered civic function awfully late to be taken seriously. Except, again, for NPR. People who talk about civic function and have built non-profit business models really mean it. People who talk about civic function as a way of shaking loose some nickels from somebody or other who will sponsor them, you know, whatever. That’s just self-dealing.

There is one other thing that I think is kind of interesting: Jeff Jarvis has been spending a lot of time blaming the newspapers themselves, and blaming news organizations in general. But especially blaming newspapers. And I thought he was being a little harsh. And I then I saw—I don’t know if you saw the Associated Press International thing, where they invited a bunch of CEOs of news organizations to a “summit.” Looking at that stuff, looking at, essentially, the conversation on the business side that newspapers are having with themselves—it made me realize something about the weakness of these institutions in the era of the Web that I had not understood before. Which is that the Chinese wall, right, the idea of advertisements as separate from the journalists, was successful enough and widespread enough and essentially honored in speech, if not always in action… that was a serious enough barrier that it actually kept the journalists themselves from thinking through their own business model. A lot of working journalists, and especially print journalists, are in the position of being sort of kept women. They don’t really understand where the money comes from but, you know, their particular sugar daddy seems pretty flush, so they just never gave it much thought. And then one day the market crashes and they suddenly discover, “Wait a minute, we were a business? And our revenues had to exceed our expenses every year? Why wasn’t I informed?”

And I think one of the reasons that journalists, in particular, are so stunned by this is not that they just didn’t happen to think about the previous business model, right? Like, why is it that the guy sitting in Mosul in a flak jacket is being subsidized by Bonwit Teller? You wouldn’t make this up from scratch, it just doesn’t make much sense. But, that’s just how the industry’s grown up. But they never thought those thoughts, because not only did they not have to, they were kind of encouraged not to. And so, I think at least part of the disorientation now isn’t just discovering the business model of print journalism today as a bad fit for the environment. It’s discovering that print journalism doesn’t survive without a business model at all. And that’s the legacy of the Chinese wall.

If there’s any lesson in all of this, it’s that you can breed an entire generation of really smart people to not think about existential threats to the business if you want to. We happen to be in an environment where, I think, it’s really damaged the print journalism world’s ability to think through the problems, because half the house hasn’t been invited into the conversation until just recently. Right? You know, I’m going to assemble all my print journalists and I’m suddenly going to tell them that the Chinese wall is down, here’s the problem we face, and 10 percent of you are laid off. It’s just not the deal they signed up for. The deal they signed up for was, “We will never have to care how the money is made.” And that whatever the advantages there in the flush years—I think that’s what made this crisis seem even more existential. And, as I said, from my point of view, it’s fifteen years too late, because the talent was encouraged never to think about the revenue.

RJ: So where does that leave the journalists?

CS: Well, it leaves a lot of journalists my age—a lot of people in their mid-forties who are mid-career—they’re not old enough to take the buyout package and scoot, but they’re also not young enough to get that this just how the environment is. And so the people who are going to take it in the neck are the people who’ve spent their whole life in a Chinese wall environment in the “the business model is separate from the product” environment. Some of them will jump to entrepreneurial activities, but most of them won’t. And so I don’t know where they go. I mean, that’s, in a way, the group of people that’s easiest to feel sorry for, because the industry probably seemed so robust and stable. I mean, I didn’t go into journalism, but many of my friends did in the ’80s. It was such a well-trodden path that everybody knew, “Oh, OK, well I’m going to get out of college and I’m going to go to Midwest and work at a regional paper for two years til my clipping file is good enough that somebody at the Post or the Times reads me and then maybe, you know….” It was this completely ordinary career path. And the people who have that ripped out from under them, but aren’t deep enough in their careers to say, “Ah, fuck it, I’m out, you know, I’m just going to go retire and do something else,” that’s really the group to watch, because a lot of them will just change jobs, do something else, I don’t know what. But, some of them may have enough experience to start doing Daily Beast/Huffington Post-like things. I mean, the fact that Smoking Gun was founded by Beth Stone from the Voice… that’s an example of somebody who really had some serious journalistic chops, just jumping ship and changing the business model entirely.

So it’s in that group of people in their mid-forties where, I think, some of the really big surprises are going to come from, because they have the journalistic experience and they also have a certain amount of inspiration built up. They’re not old enough to just take the buyout, but they’re not young enough to be living in Brighton Beach until they work out the business model. So those are the places where I think that maybe some of the new surprises are going to come from.

RJ: And what about the long-form journalists?

CS: The journalists, basically the career-journalists.

RJ: Yeah, but what about the people who are writing, you know, substantial magazine pieces?

CS: Yeah, I don’t know. That’s something … I just ran into Clive Thompson the other day and we were having exactly this conversation. Long-form journalism is, ironically, one of the easiest things to sell display ads against. So, if you can change the cost structure enough, you can actually imagine building whole businesses around that. But, you know, the economics of the ad world are obviously not stable right now. What you pretty much need to do, I think, is start with a list of sponsoring advertisers who are basically underwriting the costs of the experiment. But, you know, again, because I’ve seen my own long-form stuff rocket around the Web, I don’t actually think that the market for long-form is decreasing.

What I think is that the cost revenue structure of printed publications—you know, Time magazine is just a wasting asset. They did the thing the other day, maybe a year ago, they were asking someone for their top ten, you know, “Make a list of your top ten albums,” and they invited Carly Simon to do it. I didn’t even know that Carly Simon had been allowed out of the twentieth century. I mean, who has heard of Carly Simon? But, of course, Time magazine’s readers have heard of Carly Simon, because all they can do at this point, is [appeal] to the people who like to read things like that. So, I think the question for long-form writing of the sort that’s been practiced in The Atlantic, the New Yorker, Harper’s, the New York Times Magazine—I don’t even know if there’s a fifth addition to that category any longer—there may be endeavors that could launch around a display advertising market, but you’d have to pretty much start from whole costs.

It’s hard to—I guess Slate and Salon are examples of places that have done that in one way or another—but, because all content can reach everywhere, there’s just going to be, you know, more brutal competition. I think the number of people who are employed in that kind of work is just going to shrink.

RJ: So, you do think it’ll drop the actual total number?

CS: Yeah, I mean, what’s going to happen is, basically, the number of people who commit acts of journalism will rise enormously and the number of people who derive most, or all, of their income from acts of journalism is going to shrink. It’s just what happened to photographers with the spread of cameras. There’s just many, many, many, many more photos than there used to be. But it’s harder to make your living just by owning a nice camera and setting up in town and taking pictures of people’s kids. So, you know, I think that changed. And I think journalism is essentially next in line to see that change, to go through that change.

RJ: And do you think this is a problem for the quality of work that’s being done?

CS: It’s always a problem in the short term. It’s almost like when Web sites came out. I don’t know if you were around in the middle of the ’90s, but, oh my God, it was just like a giant step backwards for graphic design. Or look what happened right when Mac came out. Remember when the Mac came out in ’84, and then in ’87 they announced this sort of “desktop publishing” thing, right, and all the Linotype operators laughed until milk came out their noses. Twenty years later, the Linotype operators’ union votes itself out of business. Because when the Mac shipped with desktop publishing, it certainly wasn’t very good, right? Quality took a hit, everybody’s getting these birthday invites with nine fonts on them and so forth. But over the course of twenty years, quality got sorted out, because in a more competitive landscape, there were more positive returns to high quality.

So I think that’s going to happen here. The average quality of something written is going to fall to the floor because of the volume of written material. But the competition will mean that the premium for having something especially interesting is going to rise. And then, over the course of the next ten years, we’ll sort ourselves out into some sort of new equilibrium. Five years ago, I think I would have bet on the newspapers as they exist today being a big part of that new equilibrium—but, you know, they’ve done very, very little and been really unimaginative. So now, I think, if I had to make the same bet, I’d say most newspapers aren’t going to survive. Every bit of concern around the Web is, “How can we raise revenues to our existing cost structure?” rather than “How can we lower our cost structure to meet our existing revenues?”

RJ: I could keep talking about this forever.

CS: It’s a really interesting problem.

This article is part of the online supplement to the November/December print issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. To read that issue’s cover story, entitled “Overload!: Journalism’s battle for relevance in an age of too much information”, click here.

Russ Juskalian is a contributor to The Observatory and a freelance writer.