Clay Shirky: [Full interview transcript]

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Clay Shirky is a Distinguished Writer in Residence and assistant professor at New York University, dealing with the effects of new Internet technologies on society and the economy. Read Clay’s full bio here…

Click here to watch Clay’s interview, “The End of Newspapers and the Future of News.”

Clay: The newspaper model is going away, and there is no obvious single replacement for it. The fact that it’s going away is not a reversible trend, and the fact is that what’s eroding it isn’t replacing it. So what I see going on in the world now, when the techies think about journalism, they discount what the journalists know. They say, “Ugh, those whiners. Look at this technology, it’s been fabulous elsewhere, it’ll be fabulous here.” And when journalists talk about technology, they assume that the technology is infinitely flexible and has no internal logic. It’s not, “Oh, why don’t they just program something to do x and everything will be fine.” Neither understands the opportunities or the constraints of the other group in its fullness.

The old model is broken

Syndication makes no sense in a world with URLs, right? Because why are 50 different newspapers going to be running the same story when I can just go to the AP and get the story? And yet, when you look at the content of the newspaper, you realize that, far and away, the bulk, well more than 50 per cent of that newspaper, is not produced by anyone who works in that newsroom. I don’t even mean the ads, throw away the ads; the content of the newspaper, the majority of it is produced elsewhere. So that system’s now breaking.

Online news and the problem with “pull”

Information consumption as a whole is extraordinarily much larger than it was. It’s not the difference between little and lots, it’s the difference between pull and push. If everybody can pull the information they want, and no one’s in the position of being able to say, “I’m going to push this to you, because I think you should know it, whatever your opinion,” each person is more satisfied with the information they’re able to get access to. But as a whole, society loses the ability for the voters to be made aware of something that they would not otherwise have cared about. By de-coupling what the cynically-engaged people care about, and what the larger mass of voters would follow, given the choice, we may actually be in a world where each citizen gets more of what they want, but, because of this shift from push to pull, society overall loses the ability to have an informed electorate make critical decisions about who they’re electing on what issues they care about.

Newsmakers outside of the newsroom

At the same time, you have this incredible increase in the ability of citizens to observe on and report their own environment. And when you look at the Arab Spring, it is impossible to tell the story of, at the very least, awareness in the rest of the world of events in Tunisia or Egypt, especially, the kind of kick-off countries, without telling the story of cell phones.

The big, boring challenge

It took decades from the invention of the penny press, the first popular newspaper in the 1830s, for the kind of idea of what would constitute the news and how we would treat certain stories to kind of get worked out. We’re far, far from that yet on the Internet with citizen journalism. We clearly have a place where people can stand up and say, “I have seen this and I can report it.” We’re not yet at a place where citizens can do long, boring, work. And the boring stuff is really what’s at risk right now. If there’s a car crash and you have a camera, that’ll make the evening news, fine. That is done. But going down to city hall again, today, to see if the water board is corrupt or not? That’s super boring. And the only way we’ve really been able to find, in a market economy, to get people to do boring work is to pay them. So if you took a newspaper and said, “What if all the boring stories went away?” It would be a nicer newspaper to read, but it would also have much less influence on whether your town was corrupt or not.


  • The newspaper model is going away and there isn’t yet an obvious alternative for it 
  • There is a tension between what media is pushing out and what people are selecting, new media allows the audience to elect what issues they care about
  • Have the added complication of citizens being able to report their own news, such as in the Arab Spring
  • Relying on citizen journalism risks losing coverage of those “boring stories”

Follow Clay on Twitter @cshirky.


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