Investigation and Amplification: On Clay Shirky's Latest Future-of-News Missive

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If newspapers go down, it's not just journalism we'll need but the digital bullhorns to get the word out

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In my world, a new Clay Shirky essay about the future of news is an event. Shirky sets the terms of debates about the future of newspapers with casual realism and stylish prose. Supporters retweet endlessly, detractors retweet endlessly.

His latest is, nominally, a response to Dean Starkman's less-than-flattering profile of future-of-news thinkers, "Confidence Game." But it is a more substantial piece of thinking than that would imply. Shirky's piece is an elaboration of what news institutions really are and what they can and won't do.

Shirky can be hard to excerpt, but here's the key point:

Despite these challenges to newspapers, Starkman believes that we can and must "...find ways to preserve and transfer their most important attributes to a digital era, even as we push them to adapt to new financial, technological, and cultural realities." I don't believe we must do this, because I don't believe we can do this. That, I think, is the core difference between our views.

One reason for Shirky's skepticism is that when he looks at newspapers, he doesn't see an optimal newsgathering machine. "We need to support the people who cover hard news, but when you see a metro daily for a town of 100,000 that employs only six such reporters (just 10% of the masthead, much less total staff)," Shirky writes, "saving the entire edifice just to support that handful looks a lot harder than just finding new ways to support them directly."

Let's stipulate that real reporting is the civic reason to support newsgatherers of all kinds. But the rest of the edifice -- all the fluffy stuff and ad sales and all -- used to keep the amplification apparatus in good working order. The most fantastic thing about the institution of the newspaper, as we knew it, was that human beings built a culture that amplified things that made people in power uncomfortable, despite the risk that entailed. Their classified sales kept them fiscally sound and their distribution power was sufficient that they could inspire fear in politicians and business leaders.

To me, the real challenge for the future of news is *not* finding ways to support relatively tiny numbers of reporters to cover state legislatures and school board meetings. The problem seems to be in building an amplification apparatus that will reach a substantial percentage of the people in a given geography. There are some signs that this can be accomplished via a social news mechanism. Redditors, in particular, are getting good at pushing particular stories to popularity, like the video of a Texas judge hitting his daughter.

But social news efforts often draw on a national audience that's actually quite small in a given jurisdiction. That said, it's worth remembering that the newspapers were not the only source of amplification for local investigations. Rather, they often just gave stories the activation energy they needed to jump to local radio and television stations, which shamelessly plunder local papers.

So, if we were to imagine a future system that carried out the most important civic functions of a newspaper, we'd need to support a team of reporters -- and then a strategy for gaining the attention of interested locals *and* local broadcast media.

That's a tougher task than the one Shirky has laid out, but the amplification apparatus may be easier to scale than reporting or the old way of distributing newspapers. That is to say, once someone hits on a way of amplifying local investigative journalism, it may become less and less expensive as more cities join that civic immune system. And that would be very good news for hard news.



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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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