Clay Shirky on traditional media: "2009 is going to be a bloodbath."

Tom Teodorczuk of the Guardian interviews BB guest blogger alum Clay Shirky about the future of media. For traditional media, he says, "2009 is going to be a bloodbath."
The things that the Huffington Post or the Daily Beast have are good storytelling and low costs. Newspapers are going to get more elitist and less elitist. The elitist argument is: "Be the Economist or New Yorker, a small, niche publication that says: 'We're only opening our mouths when what we say is demonstrably superior to anything else on the subject.'" The populist model is: "We're going to take all the news pieces we get and have an enormous amount of commentary. It's whatever readers want to talk about." Finding the working business model between them in that expanded range is the new challenge.

Why pay for it at all? The steady loss of advertising revenue, accelerated by the recession, has normalised the idea that it's acceptable to move to the web. Even if we have the shallowest recession and advertising comes back as it inevitably does, more of it will go to the web. I think that's it for newspapers.

Clay Shirky on traditional media


  1. We just had a small round of layoffs at my small newspaper just today! And I got passed over! SO, you know, that’s that little bittersweetness.

  2. I ‘spect there’s *always* going to be room for a (small) newspaper outta radical vision. Too bad for the giants that they wasted all those years trying to keep the old model’s lungs cleaned out. But they’ve been less relevant since, oh, punk. And total lackeys of course.

  3. Papers and magazines are too bulky and wasteful, so, RIP.

    But I do have a question, and maybe someone in media can answer this one for me, where will the actual reporting come from? Since a lot of what I read on blogs and other websites seems to be reporting on reporting, where will the actual reporting come from?

  4. My chief concern is with the quality of journalism. As a pragmatist, I would prefer to see that preserved instead of getting emotional about the demise of the print newspaper. With that in mind, I wonder if newspapers should merge with Television stations. (I acknowledge that media consolidation has serious downsides, but it may be economic reality)

    Television, as far as I know, has continued to have a decent following. The newspaper staffs could become the information gathering organs of the Television shows, and the TV personalities could be the public face.

  5. I see most of the good reporting (as in, long form) coming from public broadcasting – PBS and NPR.

  6. I think the Economist, while still presenting itself as a very elite publication, is getting a bit weak in the knees. Personally, I think it’s quality has dropped off a bit in the past few years or so. More importantly, it has launched a “sister publication” to cover “lifestyle issues.” Still very highbrow and intellectual, with articles about why Solzhenitsyn and Nabokov never met. But still the current issue has Paris Hilton on the cover.

    I can’t wait ’till the Economist brand starts devoting more coverage to fad diets and bullet-points about how to drive your man wild in the bedroom — and everywhere else!!!

  7. Dear #3,

    Thank you for pointing out the obvious question. Where do sites like Drudge’s get off being psyched about troubles in big-media reporting??? Sites like his, personalities like Limbaugh, everyone in the whole world relies on information. And, that information comes from big-media reports.

    I really don’t get it. Even NPR cannibalizes reports from other sources, and uses reporters and columnists from other places, like NYTimes, for their stories.

    Furthermore, businesses need information in order to create short and long term strategies. You can’t work towards a future if you can’t see what’s around you now…

    The worst, is that this almost allows for increased corporate and government manipulation of information, people, money, and resources.

    I don’t get it, but it doesn’t seem like any of this is good for functioning democracies, human rights, or individual freedoms…

  8. The cover of Intelligent Life (w/Paris Hilton) gives the lie to Clay Shirky’s claim (elsewhere) that no one reads War and Peace anymore. : )

  9. #4: I think the print media gave up on journalistic quality a couple of decades ago. There’s almost no such thing as investigative reporting, and even comprehensible writing seems to be on the way out. As far as I can see, most of what’s reported is just an nth-generation copy of a press release from some government or corporation, usually one the reporter or one of the reporters he or she has copied from has a business relationship with.

    And the TV news world has been that way even longer. The last real hard-hitting reporting on TV went belly-up when CBS gutted Morley Safer’s nicotine-delivery-vehicle story because the tobacco companies threatened them with a lawsuit.*

    * Next time you see a cigarette pack on a TV show, check the brand name out. Most of the time they’ll be the “Morley” brand. Product placement with a hint of knife blade irony.

  10. This is why LOCAL news will continue to thrive.

    I am a newspaper reporter myself , and I can assure you that no matter how many people turn to the Huffington Post, they are never going to get what my newspaper provides; excellent coverage, photos and stories from their neighbourhoods in Vankleek Hill, Ontario. (pop. 1,100) Hawkesbury (pop. 10,000) and other nearby communities.

    I think many big newspapers are suffering because they got lazy; they pulled so much international content off the newswires that now they are not grounded to their communities. Of course they can therefore be replaced by online sources! They forgot that people buy local papers to read about their communities’ events and local politics, not the latest attacks in Gaza.

    Advice for 2009? Keep your food, travel, contacts and news local.

    As Richard Florida says, communities matter!

    (p.s. – for the curious, the website I work for is, and I am Philippe Morin. Check out those wrinkly beautiful new years’ babies!)

  11. My gut tells me I should continue to get my NEWS from the Colbert Report. That new Colbert & Colmes is a riot. Hamburger! That’s, good!

  12. Then there are those newspapers with all wire copy and no local news. How they’ve survived as long as they have is a puzzle.
    Then there are the TV stations whose news is yesterday’s newspaper for those who can’t read. That audience has dwindled.
    I expect some weeklies with decent local content will just keep going. Ethnocentrism works. I was in British Columbia one time and I bought a local newspaper and found very few references regarding that country to the south.

  13. The move to isolate shopping habits to local markets should benefit smaller local media. The more people eat/shop/spend local, the fewer resources they have to get to them.

    But yeah, US newspapers lost their chance to radically change when they were still flush with cash but losing bits of profit margin. Instead of cutting newsroom staff, they could’ve cut paper sizes and jumped on the internet bandawagon. Worked relatively well for Europe and Asia.

    Instead, they consolidated, then laid people off, because that’s all corporations know what to do to boost profit and appease shareholders. Only, unlike manufacturing, you can’t make up for lost reporters with assembly-line robots and have nobody notice.

    News media will survive, and some of them will be converted newspapers. Print will always be around, but it’ll turn super niche, an alternative people who can’t use electronics.

    What? Don’t laugh. How many of you have failing vision and carpal tunnel syndrome? How old is our population getting, how quickly is it aging? Who wants to be the newspaper with the largest circulation is the first to use 16-point body copy?

  14. #10

    Great sentiment, only, in most places, local news is utter shit. Take The New Haven Register, for example. They’ve one reporter in Hartford to cover goings on in the state capitol, ONE. They think they can swing it just based on coverage of local kiddie soccer games. It ain’t happening. They, like most other newpapers, canned most of their reporters a long time ago. Who needs to buy a paper that’s just stuff pulled off the AP wire, local little league scores and advertising inserts? Not me.

    I love the idea of a local paper. But most of them are crap. I feel sad about newspapers going the way of the dodo in the abstract. But the reality is such that we won’t miss them at all.

  15. Away with the papers! And… once they’ve turned the lights out on the web, all we’ll have is state run television. Hurray!

  16. “I think the print media gave up on journalistic quality a couple of decades ago. There’s almost no such thing as investigative reporting, and even comprehensible writing seems to be on the way out.”

    I think people started making that complaint a couple of decades after the printing press came into widespread use.

    I work at a small paper. I’d like to think that the years I’ve spent writing – for the paper and for other sources – means that I can, at the very least, produce “comprehensible writing.” I’d even claim most newspaper writing is better than what the average non-writing citizen can produce, if only due to constant practice.

    OK, I think what I’m trying to say here is that I don’t like any writer – of any media – feeling gleeful about the potential demise of other writers’ careers. Talk about how irrelevant/poor quality the big papers have become, at the bottom of it all are individuals who are trying to make a living with the skills they have, people who are facing not just losing a job but losing an industry in which to employ their skills.

  17. #10 – I like & share your optimism, and I think local rags will be the last ones standing, but we’re on the way out as well. The paper I work for (in a town of 18,000 & a daily circulation of about 35,000) has a great, dedicated editorial staff, a solid & smart newsroom, fair-to-average community support (everyone bitches about the misspellings & the liberal bias, but everyone reads us), but that won’t stop our corporate overlords in Concord, NH from eventually gutting us to death. I heard dark rumblings from the community when our circulation dept was laid off months ago in lieu of a (lousy) outsourcing solution. Quality control went to hell when they dumped our in-house composing ladies & night proofreader, and since we started sharing a new press with a larger corporate sibling (and former area rival paper) the camera room no longer brings page errors to anyone’s attention: thus a new gaping, bleeding wound is gushing ad revenue. So even if our reporters are out doing really good local stories & folks here want to read ’em, our reputation is eroding & our advertisers are leaving. We still have our original Franklin press in the lobby! We’ve been around (albeit under 19 different names) since 1790! We cover 3 states from here! But no matter. Soon my art dept will be consolidated elsewhere, the newsroom will become a small bureau staff of 2 or 3 copy editors, and we’ll fill our few pages with AP fluff.

  18. I worked for a couple of papers over the last few years. The last one I was with went bankrupt.

    It was their own damn fault too. The publisher was incredibly close-minded to new media.

    More importantly, he was highly adverse to any story that had the remotest chance of offending a current or potential advertiser. Reporters also had to be carefull that they didn’t write a critical story about business leaders in the local community. This being a business newspaper that didn’t leave much to write about. As time went by there was just more and more rehash of press releases and mind-numbingly boring “ain’t that swell!” features on companies and executives. Real journalists were often treated like “troublemakers”.

    Oh yes, lets not forget the insidious invasion of the hypocritical “fair journalism” mind set that has permeated newspapers. This basicly meant that any reporter who was idealistic with a moral sense of right and wrong and the desire to see justice done was branded as showing “liberal bias”. Newspapers have become so insipid and cowardly they deserve to die out.

    I do miss editors though. A good editor and a good reporter working together can generate some fantastic news stories.

  19. Tharklord nails it – “he was highly adverse to any story that had the remotest chance of offending a current or potential advertiser.”

    That is why newspapers are failing. Not because of the internet. How would that even be possible? There is virtually no reporting on the web at all. We have a culture of the press release masquerading as journalism. Why is that? Two reasons, the business model and the legal environment. Who are the customers of media? The advertisers are, they are the ones who purchase the services of the media company. What is the product being sold? Readers/viewers are the product. Or more specifically, their attention. The actual content can be anything.

    Now add to this the legal environment. It used to be that reporters conducted investigations that uncovered corporate and government abuse. That kind of journalism no longer exists at all. Why? Because of a series of court rulings that have made it financially impossible. Even if you wanted to you could not do investigative journalism in the US. You would be sued into oblivion in no time.

    The end result is you get a newspaper that is nothing but a few press releases and 20 pages of four color glossy inserts. You get television that is little more than talent shows and people eating worms.

  20. The Huffington Post – hailed in this story as low-cost “new media” – relies heavily on other sources for its news. The day “traditional” media dries up and HuffPo has to start sending its own reporters to Gaza (paying for their travel, visas, insurance, salary, etc.) it will cease to be low-cost. Those who wish for the demise of “traditional” media, be careful what you ask for.

    It also won’t be long before advertisers who turn their full attention to online revenue streams (since they don’t have to worry with those oh-so-dated print outlets) start getting *really* aggressive. It’s not hard to imagine an advertiser threatening to pull a site’s ad revenue if the site doesn’t block visitors who have adblocking software installed. Take a look at The Daily Kos… is it much longer before their polite request turns into a requirement?

    It seems that these foaming-at-the-mouth fans of “new” media haven’t given much thought to what will actually happen when “traditional” media goes away. Some sites will stay lean and competitive (just as many newspapers do) and others will adopt bloated, inefficient business models (as other newspapers do).

    As Mr. Daltrey once sang, “Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.”

  21. #9, I originally thought that the “Morley” brand was an inside joke by Chris Carter for use in the X-Files. I’d never noticed a character smoking “Morley” cigarettes on any other show except the X-Files. “Morley,” of course, was the favorite brand of coffin nails preferred by the arch villain of the series, C.G.B. Spender, otherwise known as “Cancer Man” or “CSM” (Cigarette Smoking Man).

    But now that I checked out “Morley Cigarettes” on Wikipedia, I see that this has been a TV staple for decades (like using “555” as a telephone prefix whenever you have to identify a fictitious telephone number on TV). I guess when a TV show presents a product in a negative light, the manufacturers are reluctant to have their own brand identified, so the producers had to come up with a ficitious brand.

    The Wikipedia entry does not make any direct referece to Morley Safer, and some of the links to programs on the page are to old shows from the 1960s before that tobacco scandal was exposed (i.e., original Mission: Impossible episodes). Besides, wasn’t the 60 Minutes segment about the tobacco industry reported by Mike Wallace?

  22. I’ve just started a local paper. I am focusing on advertising first– I am lucky enough to live in a touristy area so I am a micro-blog on dining and lodging. I’m just trying to be definitive and harder-working for my tiny audience and marketing customers.
    Digital information has made it easy to assemble vast amounts of information. As always, it’s in the execution and feel.

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