The Half-Century Accident of the Newspaper and What to Do Now

Clay Shirky released another one of his brilliant essays on the future of newsmaking on Saturday, "Why We Need the New News Environment to Be Chaotic." He continues with an argument he's been making for a while, namely, that newspapers as we knew them in the mid-to-late 20th century were a kind of happy accident. The conditions that allowed the paper, though, are now gone.This is perhaps his neatest explanation of the fundamental premise:

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. Online, though, the economic and technological rationale for bundling weakens--no monopoly over local advertising, no daily allotment of space to fill, no one-size-fits-all delivery system. Newspapers, as a sheaf of unrelated content glued together with ads, aren't just being threatened with unprofitability, but incoherence.

Far from celebrating this state of affairs, Shirky is worried about it. (If there's no news, all is permitted?) And now he's going to do something about it. The occasion for his essay is that he's going to be teaching at NYU's Journalism School next year. He says that we need more news "done for citizens instead of consumers" than the market is willing to pay for now, so there will have to be some kind of subsidy, if we want the nation's state legislatures and city halls to remain marginally less corrupt than they would be without real reporting to keep them honest.

As he notes, the history of support for public media in the U.S. is inexplicably spotty, so we could turn to foundations and donors, who make wonderful places like ProPublica work. But he points out a different kind support, too: subsidizing tools that drive down the cost of investigative reporting:

And, critically, subsidy can be in savings rather than cash. Some of what professionals did in the old model can now be done in combination with amateurs, or crowds, or machines: MAPlight* and PoliGraft* and Sunlight's Lobbying Tracker* couldn't track links between money and politics without online databases; the Charlotte News Alliance* and the Tuscon Citizen * rely on local bloggers; the Davis Wiki* and the the Oil Spill Crisis Map* provide structure to user-contributed material; Tackable is betting that the first photographer on the scene will be a citizen with a phone*.

While we're talking about costs. I would love to see someone do some quantitative analysis on the costs of investigative journalism. Anyone who's ever heard me talk about the history of energy in America knows that I hate that the world is run by spreadsheets. But in this world, you need to be able to show where investigative reportings' costs and benefits are. If we're going to have to subsidize (and I broadly agree with Clay on that), I want to know what the gap looks like. Because my intuition is that an investigative story that succeeds probably pays for itself in one way or another.

But the investigative reporting process isn't just the one that succeeds but all the failures and deadends. One of the huge costs is just *finding the stuff you want to investigate* because there are so many possibilities. So you poke around. There are many blind alleys and stories that never go anywhere. Those are the things that we can't afford now. So the big opportunity, to me, is to help citizens flag the most important things, to be the million eyes that are looking for corruption and bad actors. The actual process of following up one of those things can be slow and laborious but big news actually does succeed. It's the red herrings of investigative journalism that are really expensive.