Shirky: Cheap, free, chaotic news is better than all-the-same news businesses

Clay Shirky is getting ready to teach NYU's Journalism School undergrads, and he's posted "Why We Need the New News Environment to be Chaotic," a call-to-arms to produce a wide variety of journalisms that -- unlike the newspaper business of yore -- has a wide variety of business models that don't all fail together when technology changes some of the facts on the ground.
I could tell these students that when I was growing up, the only news I read was thrown into our front yard by a boy on a bicycle. They might find this interesting, but only in the way I found it interesting that my father had grown up without indoor plumbing. What 19 year olds need to know isn't how it was in Ye Olden Tymes of 1992; they need to know what we've learned about supporting the creation and dissemination of news between then and now. Contemplating what I should tell them, there are only three things I'm sure of: News has to be subsidized, and it has to be cheap, and it has to be free.

News has to be subsidized because society's truth-tellers can't be supported by what their work would fetch on the open market. However much the Journalism as Philanthropy crowd gives off that 'Eat your peas' vibe, one thing they have exactly right is that markets supply less reporting than democracies demand. Most people don't care about the news, and most of the people who do don't care enough to pay for it, but we need the ones who care to have it, even if they care only a little bit, only some of the time. To create more of something than people will pay for requires subsidy.

News has to be cheap because cheap is where the opportunity is right now. For all that the Journalism as Capitalism people can sound like Creflo Dollar mid-sermon, they are right to put their faith in new models for news. If for-profit revenue is shrinking and non-profit funding won't make up the shortfall, we need much cheaper ways of gathering, understanding, and disseminating news, whether measured in information produced or readers served.

And news has to be free, because it has to spread. The few people who care about the news need to be able to share it with one another and, in times of crisis, to sound the alarm for the rest of us. Newspapers have always felt a tension between their commercial and civic functions, but when a publication drags access to the news itself over to the business side, as with the paywalls at The Times of London or the Tallahassee Democrat, they become Journalism as Luxury. In a future dominated by Journalism as Luxury, elites will still get what they need (a tautology in market economies), but most communities will suffer; imagine Bell, California times a thousand, with no Ruben Vives to go after the the politicians.*

The thing I really want to impress on my students is that the commercial case for news only matters if the profits are used to subsidize reporting the public can see, and that civic virtue may be heart-warming, but it won't keep the lights on, if the lights cost more than cash on hand. Both sides of the equation have to be solved.

Why We Need the New News Environment to be Chaotic (via Waxy)


  1. Love this article. Everyone needs to read it to completion to get the full impact of what is being said. No skimming.

  2. News has been subsidized for a long time. By advertising. Which is a perfect example of how the views of the subsidizer influence what is being reported. Fox News is the way it is because it attracts viewers which attracts advertisers. News of the World was shut down because advertisers were fleeing. Etc.

    1. “Which is a perfect example of how the views of the subsidizer influence what is being reported.”

      Sure. If it’s subsidized by advertisers, then the news reflects the views of the advertisers. If it’s subsidized by government, then the news reflects the news of the government. I’m not sure which is worse.

      “We ARE the government, man! If you see something in the government you want to fix, go fix it!”

      Actually, only 50% plus one person are the government. They can do pretty much whatever they please to everyone else.

      That said, what I’ve found provides the most balanced perspective is to read only small independent blogs from both left-wing nutters and right-wing nutters, both sides are eager to prove the other wrong, so they actually use lots of primary sources and detail. The moderate news outlets (The Atlantic, The Economist, NYT) are just the carefully edited corpo-government perspective.

  3. I don’t understand the “News needs to be free” idea. As one of those paperboys from the dark and distant past, I can assure you that news was not free. I would hunt down my customers at the local pool if they blew me off too often, embarrassing them in front of their kids. Shirky’s parents had to pay to get the paper delivered to their door.

    And if they went downtown to get it at the newsstand, they paid there too. Maybe TV news was free, but it had commercials you waited through interminably.

    The New York Times has a paywall now that falls if you purchase a print subscription. I pay a few bucks a week for just the Saturday and Sunday print papers in my driveway, and as a result I get Monday through Friday news for free.

    I don’t get the opposition to a token payment for news on the Internet, since it is BETTER than the print version and costs at least as much to produce.

    1. I also don’t understand the opposition to paying for news on the internet. I subscribe to the Times iPhone app and read it probably 3x a day. Its far better than any other news site I’m aware of. I don’t understand why anyone interested in news *wouldn’t* subscribe to it, but the only times I ever hear it mentioned is to dismiss their business model (“paywall! ha!”) or to describe some weird method for reading it without paying.

      My big fear is that if we don’t support things like the New York Times, we’re going to wind up with more and more Fox News fascist crap.

    2. It isn’t that it should be free its just that by itself few will pay for it. Shirky is just acknowledging the reality when news is treated as a separate entity without the support of the rest of the paper it isn’t viable.

      The challenge is to stop getting stuck on the old newspaper model and find one that works.

  4. Without reading the whole thing, I would hope that this — “News has to be subsidized, and it has to be cheap, and it has to be free.” — is defined more clearly, as the three terms could easily be misread (or read differently from how I do). I would reframe it as follows:

    News has to be paid for outside of any market without being dependent on any profit motive, if has to be accessible, and it has to be independent. Of these, I think we only meet the second requirement here in the US.

    For a democracy to have truly independent media, the cost of that must be borne by the entire population, with no other source of revenue that can be used as leverage or influence. This means something akin to the licensing model we see in the UK and other countries that took their guidance from there, as opposed to the “free TV” model of General Sarnoff and CBS in the early days of TV, where advertising paid the bill. But rather than collecting money from viewers, with all the enforcement hassles and Big Brother monitoring schemes, we leverage the fact that we the people own the public airwaves.

    By selling eyeballs to advertisers, the means of controlling and filtering news based on the interests of power rather than the people was set in place. I proposed this yesterday somewhere else, as it happens, but if I were empowered to make this work, I would take a percentage of the revenues earned by any ad-supported/for-profit media organization that licenses the public airwaves and use that to fund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, getting away from direct appeals or corporate sponsors to fund programming. Who pays the piper calls the tune, as the saying goes, and right now we dance to someone else’s music.

    I suspect if we look at the revenue generated by all the TV networks vs the CPB’s budget, it may amount to something like a rounding error, so I’m not talking about a tithe or any huge drag on their business. A quick search reveals that CBS made more than $1Billion over the past year while the CPB’s budget proposal is $422million. And we would need to address the increase in reliance on the internet for delivery, either over cable or telco systems, so that the subsidy can still be captured. When we look at the business models at work — cable providers charge subscribers and content providers, counting the cash with both hands — there are some opportunities to re-invigorate the public service component of broadcasting.

    I’m reminded of Newton Minow’s address of 50 years ago on the power and responsibility of broadcasters:

  5. News is too important for its funding to be centralised at ANY point. He who controls the purse-strings, will ALWAYS influence what is written. As a result, news being funded by a few big advertisers is bad. News being funded by a few big charities is bad. News being funded by the government is bad.

    It is a shame that most people do not care enough to pay for news, precisely because small payments made directly to the news organisation by a large number of individuals is the best way of keeping these organisations honest.

    Thus, the challenge remains unsolved – news needs to be freely and widely distributed (for exactly the reasons given in the excellent article), news needs to be well-funded (for all of the in-depth global coverage and investigative reporting), and news cannot be centrally subsidised.

    Still need a way to square the circle…

    1. “News is too important for its funding to be centralised at ANY point. He who controls the purse-strings, will ALWAYS influence what is written. As a result, news being funded by a few big advertisers is bad. News being funded by a few big charities is bad. News being funded by the government is bad.”

      Can’t fully agree. If the government is a representative democracy, then the government represents the public, i.e. all of us. This is why anti-government rhetoric always seems so self-defeating to me. It posits government as some evil entity “over there” in total opposition to freedom-loving individuals everywhere.

      We ARE the government, man! If you see something in the government you want to fix, go fix it!

      1. I would agree with you in almost all circumstances, apart from the issue of news. The government are indeed our (highly empowered) representatives, if not employees. As a result we need an accurate way of evaluating their performance and identifying any malfeasance. To be able to “see something” that I want to fix, I need to be able to see everything.

        In turn, this means that we need news about the government coming from a source that is independent of the government. After all, if the government starts shaping what is reported it will censor the fact that it is doing it. Indeed, the first thing a less-than-democratic government does is subvert the media, whether it is extreme cases, such as North Korea and Cuba, or less extreme ones, such as Russia and Italy.

  6. QUALITY news can pay for itself with subscriptions, with modest advertising backup. Witness the Economist, Atlantic, and Scientific American magazines.
    Alas, all three of those are slipping in quality in an attempt to seek wider markets (with SciAm already way ’round the bend), and will lose subscribers because of that strategy.
    Hell, I used to pay $90 / year for a monthly of maybe 12 pages per issue, with exactly zero advertising, called Aviation Safety. I read every single word in every issue. It was 50% raw data and 50% well-edited information, and 100% vital.

  7. I think it is important to remember, especially in times
    of war, like these, that power is gained and held by filtering
    the news to compromise democracy and to mislead the masses, and
    to make those who have news, advantaged, and smarter than those
    who do not have news. If you had news, you may vote different.

    News empowers the public over those who filter it to seem
    smarter or to gain advantage over the public. News can result
    in justice to wrongdoers, who have much reason to filter the
    news to continue their crimes.

    News (or truth) is a very important subject, and it’s place
    in our society is multi-faceted, and in modern times,
    no one should over-estimate the altruism of those who are in
    the “news biz”, where news, which is a cornerstone of
    democracy and national security, is mitigated by their bottom
    lines, and the interests of those of power attending to
    population management and deciding what the public must think.

    Some might even suggest there should be policing of the news,
    and stiff fines for reporting untrue things, and other policing
    of the modern news crimes of our times.

    I think it is a subject which is not spoken of enough.

  8. “out of the crooked timber of humanity no straight thing was ever made”

    Great line.

    I forget about the small markets…I live in a metro city, our (decent) local rag can be read online for free. My workplace subscribes to the (rather expensive) analog paper version, so I don’t feel -that- guilty for not subscribing myself.

    But the Mudgevillle MementoMori Press Democrat? That paper is on it’s way Out. Pity.

    But: the best paper for global news bar-none imho is The Economist. I subscribe to the print version…it actually has articles with thought and perhaps even some depth. I used to read Time and Newsweek as a young turk: they too once had something to say. . .now? Current events, world affairs, thought provoking analysis? Hmph. Scarce indeed. Seems like one (max two) worthy articles, the rest fluff and nonsense. They have become People Plus. Sad.

    The latest Economist has 14 pages on the future of news…their take: the social coffee house culture of 300 years ago returns due to the Internet ‘…making news more participatory, diverse and partisan’. According to them newspaper circulation rose 6% between 05 and 09, in places with literacy but not enough wealth for personal computers. Seems that those with screens spurn sheets. :D

    Still (and I quote): ‘The news agenda is no longer controlled by a few press barons and state outlets, like the BBC.’…’Authoritarian rulers everywhere have more to fear.’ That’s good, yes?

    But: ‘Shrinking revenues have reduced the amount and quality of investigative…reporting in the print press’ and of course ‘In a more competitive world the money seems to be in creating an echo chamber for peoples prejudices: thus Fox News…’

    Plenty more: I discovered The Economist in the airport (finally a magazine that takes me more than an hour to read!)

    At any rate: media is not dead…it’s just that change is a constant. But still we forget.

  9. If journalists are serious about resolving their future, then it’s time for them to take back their profession and restore honesty and integrity. Owner/editorial political bias, pressure from major advertisers not to publish a particular story etc. Fox News even went to court (and won!) for the right to lie, thereby tarring every journalist under the News Corp umbrella with the same brush…deservedly or not. News isn’t worth paying for if it’s just fabrication.

  10. Ha! Government subsidized news? Can’t even get them to fund PBS or NPR. Even if they were willing to fund journalism, I wouldn’t trust them to keep their hands off of it. Sure advertisers can try to influence what does or doesn’t get printed, but at least there’s more than one of them to answer to.

  11. I spent over a decade working in the “professional” media and have a PhD in Development with a focus on information technology. Here’s what worries me about the “chaotic” approach to news… ethics, training and responsibility. I have my (very large) share of issues with corporate media and the folks who pull the strings behind ’em (Rupert Murdoch, anyone?). BUT… it’s quite disheartening to see bloggers-for-hire, like certain folks in Cuba receiving paycheques from the U.S. State Department and the share of the $20-million+ so-called “democracy funds”, who are hailed as “heroes” and persons “putting their lives at risk” to “tell the truth”. Hah! “Citizen journalists” who are well-intentioned but untrained in journalism ethics and law are bad enough – but those who are supported with a specific political purpose in mind, that’s quite another matter.

  12. End journalism school, which is a totally worthless hack haven that saddles journalists with debt, and it could certainly be a lot cheaper.

    It is odd to take the futurism advice of someone who has fled journalism for the ivory tower. And it is bizarre to claim that 1992 journalism was of only one, non-chaotic type… Or it would be bizarre if the writer was not a professional pontificator.

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