Shirky on the nature of institutions

Clay Shirky's got another barn-burner of an essay, this one on the call to establish a functional news system with stable places for reporters by creating stable newspapers (Shirky: "like saying that if we had some ham, we could have a ham sandwich, if we had some bread.").

Institutions reduce the choices available to their members. (This is Ronald Coase’s famous argument about transaction costs.) This reduction allows better focus on the remaining choices they face.

An editorial board meets every afternoon to discuss the front page. They have to decide whether to put the Mayor’s gaffe there or in Metro, whether to run the picture of the accused murderer or the kids running in the fountain, whether to put the Biker Grandma story above or below the fold. Here are some choices they don’t have to make at that meeting: Whether to have headlines. Whether to be a tabloid or a broadsheet. Whether to replace the entire front page with a single ad. Whether to drop the whole news-coverage thing and start selling ice cream.

Every such meeting, in other words, involves a thousand choices, but not a billion, because most of the big choices have already been made. These frozen choices are what gives institutions their vitality — they are in fact what make them institutions. Freed of the twin dangers of navel-gazing and random walks, an institution can concentrate its efforts on some persistent, medium-sized, and tractable problem, working at a scale and longevity unavailable to its individual participants.

Institutions also reduce the choices a society has to make. In the second half of the 20th century, “the news” was whatever was in the newspaper on the morning, or network TV at night. Advertisers knew where to reach shoppers. Politicians knew who to they had to talk to to get their message out (sometimes voluntarily, sometimes not.) Readers understood an Letters page as the obvious way of getting wider circulation for their views.

That dual reduction of choices masks an essential asymmetry, though. Institutions are designed to reduce they choices for their members, but they only happen to reduce the choices in society. A publisher may want reporters at their desks at 10 am, and to be the main source of breaking news for the paper’s readers. The former desire is under the publisher’s control; the latter not.

Institutions, Confidence, and the News Crisis