Clay Shirky – Losing the discipline of journalism

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Clay Shirky is leading a Berkman Fellows Hour session.

[Note: What follows is live-blogging. I am undoubtedly getting things wrong, not getting emphases right, missing some crucial points, etc. You can rest assured that Clay was brilliant, and any deficiencies are due to my reporting. Really.]

Clay begins by saying he’s an info junkie, and finds newspapers frustrating. The newspaper tells you that there’s been a coup somewhere, but you can’t get the backstory, although there’s sudoku and sports news. “Come back tomorrow for more information,” the paper implicitly says. The Web, on the other hand, lets us get all the info we want about any topic; there’s no width vs. depth trade-off.

Clay says that he’s been assuming that since he likes the Web handles this, so everyone else must, too. He took this as a systematic good. But, he’s changing his mind about it. “Markets produce less accountable journalism than democracies need to govern.” That’s the lens he’s using. Democracies oscillate between two poles: a complete market-driven environment for news (in which case you get less news than you need to discipline elites) or you get more of that accountable journalism through subsidies that distort the news. There doesn’t seem to be a good, stable optimum. Optimizing for all interests is actually worse, he believes.

He gives an example from today’s Boston Globe, about what the Secretary of Commerce is doing for area fisherman. Very few people — possibly in the low thousands — actually read the second paragraph. The article still is a signal that communicates to the elites something independent of the facts being reported: this is page B4 news. But, when the news junkies like Clay defect from newspapers (to newsfeeds, etc.), the paper loses its leverage; it can no longer tell the Secty of Commerce that he should keep working with the fisherman or we’ll get the story of his _not_ doing so promoted to page A1.

Clay says he’s not nostalgic. This can’t be reversed. And the analogies have been over-emphasized: the front page isn’t really like the home page. But we are at risk of the news junkies getting more of what they want, and the rest get what they want — less news. We’re giving up one of the mechanisms by which a grassroots could discipline local officials and, to some degree, the business community. Are we losing the representational function the newspapers served?

He ends by asking if that concern makes sense. And are there mechanisms by which we can capture some of the ability to discipline the elites even after the data is unbundled and the news junkies drift off?

Q: How is this different from the plaint about the loss of the three major networks as the shared platform for news?

CS: Tim Wu has a great book coming out on this. The centrism of the networks was non-organic, having been forced (in part) by the Fairness Doctrine. Also, lacking a parliamentary system, national disciplining of elites matter less. [I think I missed part of this.] In the 1950s, the coverage was 50-50 Congress vs. President. The rise of presidential coverage tracks with the nationalization of the news media (as well as with the increase in presidential power).

Q: In a small city that is part of LA, the people running the city systematically bilked the taxpayers, and were finally revealed by the LA Times. This is becoming a rallying cry for the value of traditional journalism. There are two sides. First, the reason the scammer chose that city was because it’s not well covered by the LA Times. It was almost an accident that the LA Times got it. Second, a local blogger was beating the drum about this story for a year but no one would listen to him. So, Clay, you’re suggesting we’re going through a shift in sorting mechanisms in how we encounter the news. Previously, the news was curated by a homogenous group, but they were also often somewhat protected from the need to drive advertising, and would give us a civically-interesting blend. Now we’ve gone from curation to search. I think there is a third shift, a social shift. In August, ComScore said we’re spending time on Facebook than Google. Over time, we’ll know the news because our friends are talking about it. But why are they talking about it? Either because of an authoritative curator or an echo chamber. Last point: The authoritative curator had a disciplinary function: You malfactors will be found and exposed. If this is right and we’re getting social curation, is there a social discipline that occurs when enough people recognize that someone is culpable, and can that become the disincentive for bad behavior?

CS: I have no brief for the good old days or even for traditional media. But, I don’t think the situation with social media is as bad as you’re saying. Zephyr Teachout said last week that even people who think about this medium all the time have trouble decoupling stuff that went together. In particular, voice no longer means power. When there is scarce access to the medium, anyone who speaks in public takes on disproportionate power. Now anyone can speak, and it turns out not to matter. The old Soviet critique of the US: You can say whever you want, but no one cares. The Phoenix in Boston broke the Catholic priest scandal, it got picked up by the Globe, and the Globe got the Pulitzer. Voice != power any more.

Q: I actually read the fisheries stories. They’re changing the rules for fishery management for the first time in a hundred years. There is conflict between scientists and fishermen. The neswpaper plays an arbitrator role between these groups. Not just disciplining.

Q: For the discipline role, why does Section B exist?

CS: Anyone can do an RSS feed, but if there’s evidence that there’s a reporter on the story…It’s a show of strength.

Q: It’s maybe less than about power than about setting the narrative, which may in some cases matter for power reasons, but not always. It’s not always or even often about the levers of power being pulled

CS: But for the Secty of Commerce…?

Q: From within the belly of the beast, there’s more of a dance here. The killing fields wasn’t reported as important until Sydeny Schanberg wrote the book that told the story as a story. Editors want stories.

CS: Since aggregation moved from the server to the client, the old “Come for the golf, stay for the genocide” doesn’t hold. We seem to have a larger loyalty (see Richard Rorty) so we are paying attention, but we can’t route out corruption when the mix is so mixed.

Q: People think of themselves as watching news, but studies shows their attention is at best inconstant. Newspapers gave the reading of news status. It’s not so much about being a gatekeeper as an entity that says there is high social status in being conversant in the topics the news covers. But newspapers are more aware of what people are actually reading.

CS: The question of status is interesting because of the Madisonian argument that governing is a matter of balancing factions in contention. When reading a newspaper is a status symbol, that makes some institution a potential political force. When the Oregonian wrote story after story about the abysmal state of mental hospitals, nothing happened. Only when they ran a front-page editorial asking the governor to step in did they get any results.

Q: The curator on the Net is algorithmic and non-deterministic. Some articles become widespread but no single entity controls which.

CS: County-level corruption will never get to the top of Google News.

Q: That is an algorithm problem. Over all, it’s actually a demand problem. But you’re pointing at a supply problem: We don’t have people digging into very local stories. The problem you’re raising about disciplin is a variant of the collective action problem. When the LA Times prints 50 stories about the corruption in a small town, there’s a theory of change: Maybe the corrupt officials will be so embarrassed that they’ll resign, or the prosecutor will be so embarrassed that he’ll prosecute, or in the long term citizens will follow local politicians more closely. The civic consequences theory is overly-optimistic. Jonathan Stray wrote recently about designing journalism to be used. Sometimes that’s to get you to vote in a particular way. But it can also be to engage in civic action. To what extent is press scrutiny a special class of the collective action problem you discussed in your previous three books?

Q: You seem focused on regional news…

CS: Because we’re getting much more national than regional…

Q: … on the encouraging side, regional and local are the one type of news people seem willing to pay for.

CS: This is Jeff Jarvis‘ theory, but I’m not totally convinced.

Q: If we’re aiming at journalism as a spur to collective action, I have even less reason to get generalized news. I’ll just get it from my partisan sources.

Q: That’s the solidarity problem Clay is trying to duck.

CS: In financial journalism, it’s not a collective action problem. Markets work it out. I have trouble squaring news you can use with xenophilia: I can’t affect faraway lands.

Q: The best example is Darfur, which spurred collective action. There’s an enormous problem figuring out what constitutes activism in the digital sphere. All activism is a waste of time unless you link it to a theory of change. Malcolm Gladwell picks out the moments in the civil rights movement were the action was effective but skips all the attempts that were not. Hoder was sentenced to 19.5 years in an Iranian prison, and I don’t know what to do. The further a story is away from you, the harder it is to figure out how to pull the levers. Until you have some sense of how to affect change in the world, how do you figure out what is useful?

Q: Media still have power. The distinction between news junkies and the rest that you started with perhaps contains a bias? Are those who read what we consider to be trashy news — say birthers — also news junkies.

CS: It’s not a political alignment. It’s about knowing the broad range of stories that matter in the world. It’s not about political centrism.

Q: In moving from B1 to A1, the person doesn’t have time to make a substantitive change. Does the jump serve a substantitive purpose? Does discipline work?

CS: E.g., the outcry about the gutting the public option in the health care debate allowed the left to pull the discussion in that direction (even though they failed to get the public option). Similarly, the oil blew out in the Gulf. BP underreported. And you can see CEO Hayward‘s attitude change.

previous:
Alan Friedman – 9/21/2010
next:
Jim Bessen — “Is technological innovation on the Web different?” (Oct. 5, 2010)

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