Clay Shirky, the NYU professor and prolific author, wrote a sensational essay about the Web’s disruption of journalism that passed around from editors’ desktops to high-profile Twitter accounts back in March. In his recent discussions about media, Mr. Shirky has been examining how aggregation has become a new model for the news.
Now, in this month’s issue of intellectual online magazine Cato Unbound, Mr. Shirky writes the lead essay about his big ideas for journalism and offers more detail on how he thinks things will work. According to Mr. Shirky, the journalists of the future will be more like editors for the thousands of citizen journalists out there covering events in real time with photographs, Twitter updates and blog posts.
Like driving, journalism is not a profession — no degree or certification is required to practice it, and training often comes after hiring — and it is increasingly being transformed into an activity, open to all, sometimes done well, sometimes badly, but at a volume that simply cannot be supported by a small group of full-time workers. The journalistic models that will excel in the next few years will rely on new forms of creation, some of which will be done by professionals, some by amateurs, some by crowds, and some by machines.
He appreciates the Huffington Post’s Off the Bus model, which “used groups of citizens to offer coverage of events like the Iowa caucus by blanketing the state with hundreds of observers out for a couple of hours each, something no one could afford to hire professionals to do.”
Meanwhile, a small, paid staff never larger than five people will translate all those bits and pieces of news into something more digestable for a wider audience. “There are still only twenty-four hours in a day, and as anyone who’s tried direct access knows, there’s always a sizable portion of the crazy in any raw feed,” he wrote. In this new model of journalism, the “ratio of amateurs to professionals came to exceed 1000:1.”
Mr. Shirky also digs up the not-for-profit journalism model, which he calls the “one rich person” model. Think Richard Mellon Scaife as the “funding father” of conservative publications, or the NPR Fund Drive, he wrote, “where the small core of highly involved users makes above-market-price donations to provision a universally accessible good run for revenue but not for profit.”
In an age where the cost of making things public has fallen precipitously, patronage models suddenly look not just viable but eminently reproducible. The leverage to be gotten from motivations other than profit is now growing rather than shrinking; a poorly capitalized journalistic weblog is now likelier to reach a million readers than a well-funded but traditional journalistic outfit is.
Like ProPublica, then.
He also compares this upheaval in journalism to the history of people’s ability to drive. First, everyone paid a chauffeur–now nearly everyone can drive. Except some of us still prefer to hop in a cab now and then, or, shall we say, read the New York Times‘ front page. “We still pay people to drive, from buses to race cars, and there are more paid drivers today than there were in the days of the chauffeur. Paid drivers are, however, no longer the majority of all drivers,” Mr. Shirky said.
The question is, who is gonna hold the wheel to lead us in the right direction? There’s still a bumpy road ahead.