Clay Shirky has a great post on his blog that neatly summarizes the woes of the news industry – it’s a great ideology-free catch-up not only on the unraveling of the news business model, but also a smart look-ahead at where we’re likely to be heading. I won’t attempt to summarize it; it’s a short piece that’s well-worth the read.
That said, there are a couple of points worth highlighting. The first, and most useful, is that we need to embrace this period of chaos, as we look for new models – not just of business, but of news generation, creation and consumption. It may seem like a fairly obvious point – and it is. But it bears constant repeating, not least because we seem to constantly be slipping into ideological ruts as fast as we pioneer new ideas. Faster, even.
…if our test for any new way of producing news is whether it replaces all the functions of a newspaper, we’ll build things that look like newspapers, and if replicating newspapers online were a good idea, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place.
…the news ecosystem isn’t just getting more chaotic, we need it to be more chaotic, because we need multiple competing approaches. It isn’t newspapers we should be worrying about, but news, and there are many more ways of getting and reporting the news that we haven’t tried than that we have.
Exactly. Too much of our time is still spent arguing about what is and isn’t journalism, or demonizing others who disagree with us. We should be letting a thousand flowers bloom and trying to learn from lessons and reality, rather than ideology.
The second – and perhaps just as important – point worth repeating is that news has a public service function. That it isn’t enough just to make money; journalism should – while making enough money to stay in business – aspire to more than just profitability.
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.
Now, perhaps not everyone agrees with this view of the information industry. There certainly isn’t any law requiring us to be public-minded. Yet news organizations lose much of their moral force when they demand more openness from governments if all they do is provide the information they create to $10,000-a-year subscribers.
Which brings up a debate we’ll have to have sooner or later. At what price point is news “cheap enough” to be a public good? Does putting up a pay wall mean you’ve abandoned the public? What if it costs a buck? $50? $500? Or if the premium content gets released a day later? An hour later? Clay has his view, which I have quibbles with. But his reasoning makes sense.
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.
I don’t know that news has to be free – before the internet, people still had to shell out a quarter (or whatever) for the day’s paper. But I agree it needs to be cheap enough to be reasonably widely read – perhaps not by the entire population; but certainly by the people who care – or should care – about any given issue.
Anyway, read the piece. It’s a good one.