Clay Shirky's Case for Chaos in News Production

Because "news" is different from "newspaper"

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Perhaps it’s his cameo in Page One, that documentary about that little newspaper, that’s got him musing over the present and future of news production. In a thoughtfully wrought post today Clay Shirky argues that we--being the American Public--need more, not less, chaos in the new news environment because chaos is the competition that will drive innovation in finding financially sound solutions for the business of news gathering.

He does not, unlike others, propose an outright solution to the glaring reality that news often costs far more to produce than it’s capable of earning. He does say a few things that are actually more interesting and more useful in the face of a problem so big that it renders any one solution a bit obtuse.

Newspapers Resemble Frankenstein Shirky argues that the bundling of disparate news and many advertisers in one place only every made sense in the very peculiar instance of the physical American newspaper. As he describes the system does seem a little strange: “Writing about the Dallas Cowboys in order to take money from Ford and give it to the guy on the City Desk never made much sense, but at least it worked.”

But News is a Public Good Fundamentally, he points out, “even in their worst days, newspapers supported the minority of journalists reporting actual news, for the minority of citizens who cared.” And that even though it’s a minority of citizens who actually consume real news that news is worth protecting because it’s a public good. Literally, as he points out, as “both in the colloquial sense of ‘good for the public’ and in the economic sense of ‘best provisioned for a whole group at once.’” The few people who do care about the real news--the kind that preserves our democracy--he argues, alert the rest of the public in times of crisis.

And The Ecosystem Can Deliver, Perhaps Messily Becuase the old model is dying (or dead in some cities) and the production of a public good is therefore in jepardy Shirky advocates rooting around for solutions, however hairbraned they might seem now. He cites MAPlight and PoliGraft, Sunlight’s Lobbying Tracker and the Oil Spill Crisis Map as initial examples of these.

Becuause he’s a creative thinker, Shirky closes with implicit optimism in and the encouragement of a scientist: it may not be pretty but nature has the ability to works itself out. His term “news ecosystem” evidences the depth of change afoot; “new ecosystem” is more apt than any other traditional valuation in defining the group of diverse entities that now produce news. Also like a good scientist, Shirky separates the public good, news, from its traditional vehicle, newspapers, to make the whole thing seem a little less scary: “It isn’t newspapers we’re replacing, its news, and there are many more ways of getting and reporting the news that we haven’t tried than that we have.”
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.