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Clay Shirky tells us Foreign News is facing market failure

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“When did you stop being an optimist?” I asked CLAY SHIRKY , author of “Here Comes Everybody” & “Cognitive Surplus”. He’s known as an evangelist for the tools of new media. He’s written lovingly and at length about the opportunities social networks provide for us all to come together, and maybe change the world for good.

In conversation with fellows at the Nieman Foundation today, he tackled the downside that’s dearest to our hearts. If as he puts it “everyone is a media outlet”, then he clearly believes much of traditional media is history. Here’s what I jotted down as we all dug into the future of news.

First, Clay’s take on today’s media market. “My operating thesis is that the internet is not a new part of the media landscape. The internet IS our new media landscape.”

In the traditional world, news has always been subsidised – the prestige core of many broadcast operations, the heart of newspapers that bundle it together with sports results and real estate and as many ads as possible.

He sees no way to preserve the old models. Paywalls, micropayment models, all vain attempts to pull back some of that disappearing revenue. Basically, “all news models are damaged by the new abundance”. So why pay to play?

He sees little future either for the traditional small city newspaper supplementing its local coverage with national and international coverage from the wires. “Syndication makes no sense in a world with URLs”.

He says there’s no parallel. “News is special”. It’s not like the music business, where supply will always rise to meet demand, because supplying the big stuff – global newsgathering, investigative projects, even the nuts-and-bolts of local politics – costs too much.

In civic terms, that costs us dear. “Markets do not produce as much news as democracy requires”. “A big piece of the civic fabric is going”. “We’re losing the disciplining effect on government”.

And so we’re losing the knowledge about global affairs that comes from the traditional model. Pick up a thoughtful broadsheet and you get the “Page One” effect – even if you brush past it on the way to the sports scores or the movie reviews, you’re going to notice that blaring headline about Wikileaks or the front page feature on Chinese censorship.

If you’re still reading this, I bet you still care, and care intensely about foreign news and indepth reporting. Well, if we look at the big picture, says Clay, we’re the”outliers” – “almost no one cares”. And “by unbundling the news junkies from the rest of the world we give up our ability to say ‘You ought to pay attention to this!’”

News-hungry folks, he says, are in heaven – there’s so much out there – “you’re mainlining all this”. The new bundling, whether it’s the Huffington Post or the Twitterstream or any number of new alternatives, is massively creative. It’s apathy that’s the big problem for a democratic society: for those who are apathetic, who’ve always been “pulled along by the omnibus” news vehicles, why bother?

Oh dear oh dear, is there any silver lining? What about examples like the UK Guardian , with masses more readers online than in print, and an impressive number of those overseas. Er, but it’s free. We tossed around ideas about metered billing, the model the “New York Times” is adopting. So much will ride on how those readers react.

Shirky said he’s curious to see how the NYT will frame its marketing message. A straightforward transaction, the small fee for services rendered? Or more of an emotive appeal, with a subtext that goes something like “will you reach into your wallet to be part of the bulwark against the dark ages?”

So all in all, we were pretty downbeat. One of my favourite Clay Shirky quotes comes from ”Cognitive Surplus” : “Upgrading one’s imagination about what is possible is always a leap of faith”. The closing quote for us today? “The next big thing in news is that there is no next big thing”. We’re all open to suggestions.

Author: philippathomas

I've been a BBC newswoman for 30 years: reporting from around the world. Currently to be seen anchoring BBC World News TV. Main interests - politics, psychology, reading, trekking, and all things American. I began this personal blog as a 2011 Nieman Journalism Fellow at Harvard. You can also find me talking daily news on Twitter at @PhilippaBBC, coaching @positivecoachi3, and life & travel on Instagram at @philippanews. Thanks for reading!

One thought on “Clay Shirky tells us Foreign News is facing market failure

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