July 11, 2014


Trouble in the News Business

Bored at work or killing time on your commute? You know where to go for hilarious cat videos.

The media business doesn’t have a problem making money from entertaining videos, says Clay Shirky, a technology theorist, professor at NYU, and the author of Here Comes Everybody.

But hard news is facing serious challenges, like beat reporting on the city council. “The news is a bad business. It’s a good civic function, but it’s a bad business to be in because people don’t pay for the news."

The good news is that people are finally realizing that there should be a news-gathering function that isn’t dependent on advertising dollars. Shirky sees three potential models for the future of news:

* People who donate their time and attention, like volunteer community firefighters

* The billionaire model, where someone like Jeff Bezos writes a check and supports an organization like The Washington Post or First Look Media

* Crowd-sourced support of professional institutions (a la public radio)

The public radio model may work best because, according to Shirky, “it takes money to get people to do boring jobs. It doesn’t take money to get people to do exciting jobs.”

“If all the money in the music industry went away tomorrow, somebody would invent a new song day after tomorrow, and they would just be happy if other people sang it. That’s not true for covering the city council.”

Public Engagement

The media has evolved from having an authoritative figure talking at the audience to an audience free-for-all.

“There’s certainly something lost when it’s all just anybody come in and comment, but I don’t think there’s anything lost that’s worth losing in not having a Walter Cronkite. The idea that choice in your news landscape was which choice of three white men you were going to have tell you the news at six o’clock, that’s foul,” says Shirky.

Instead, he says there needs to be a middle ground between a Walter Cronkite-type anchor deciding what is news worthy and allowing carte blanche public comment.

Shirky sees media outlets moving away from asking open-ended questions that encourage non-productive ranting. He believes that when outlets ask targeted questions, they’re able to engage with the audience in a more meaningful way.

Upheaval in Higher Education

Shirky, a professor at NYU, says that the same turbulence that struck the music and media industries is now headed for higher education.

Although the technological upheaval started with MOOCs (massive open online courses), online education now includes “flipped classrooms,” where there are still videos and online tests, but students also come together for regular classroom meetings.

Shirky calls for higher education to make changes now, before it’s too late. “NYU will suffer mightily in any world in which the classroom experience is kind of taken for granted as the only alternative, because it’s stopping being the only alternative.”

Whether it’s music, media, or education, “when the Internet comes along, it typically opens up experiences to a much larger group of people and even if those experiences are inferior to the best product on offer – YouTube vs. a trip to the movies – people find things to like about the more open, more distributed experience.”

higher education, Clay Shirky, news, Culture, Internet, media

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