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Clay Shirky: Journalists as Kept Women, Time to Change

Ever since I finished reading Clay Shirky’s book Here Comes Everybody, I have been dropping his name a lot. Now the CJR does a long Q&A with him, which is a must read, but if you can’t read it all, be sure to go to Part II and read his thoughts on for-profit papers taking on a real civic face and going nonprofit.

Here he faults working journalists saying:

A lot of working journalists, and especially print journalists, are in the position of being sort of kept women. They don’t really understand where the money comes from but, you know, their particular sugar daddy seems pretty flush, so they just never gave it much thought. And then one day the market crashes and they suddenly discover, “Wait a minute, we were a business? And our revenues had to exceed our expenses every year? Why wasn’t I informed?”

And I think one of the reasons that journalists, in particular, are so stunned by this is not that they just didn’t happen to think about the previous business model, right? Like, why is it that the guy sitting in Mosul in a flak jacket is being subsidized by Bonwit Teller? You wouldn’t make this up from scratch, it just doesn’t make much sense. But, that’s just how the industry’s grown up. But they never thought those thoughts, because not only did they not have to, they were kind of encouraged not to. And so, I think at least part of the disorientation now isn’t just discovering the business model of print journalism today as a bad fit for the environment. It’s discovering that print journalism doesn’t survive without a business model at all. And that’s the legacy of the Chinese wall.

What will happen to journalists?

… what’s going to happen is, basically, the number of people who commit acts of journalism will rise enormously and the number of people who derive most, or all, of their income from acts of journalism is going to shrink. It’s just what happened to photographers with the spread of cameras. There’s just many, many, many, many more photos than there used to be. But it’s harder to make your living just by owning a nice camera and setting up in town and taking pictures of people’s kids. So, you know, I think that changed. And I think journalism is essentially next in line to see that change, to go through that change.

Quality will prevail, it will just take some time.

The average quality of something written is going to fall to the floor because of the volume of written material. But the competition will mean that the premium for having something especially interesting is going to rise. And then, over the course of the next ten years, we’ll sort ourselves out into some sort of new equilibrium. Five years ago, I think I would have bet on the newspapers as they exist today being a big part of that new equilibrium—but, you know, they’ve done very, very little and been really unimaginative. So now, I think, if I had to make the same bet, I’d say most newspapers aren’t going to survive. Every bit of concern around the Web is, “How can we raise revenues to our existing cost structure?” rather than “How can we lower our cost structure to meet our existing revenues?”

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