December 7, 2011

SPAT: Clay Shirky v. Dean Starkman


There’s a smart debate afoot: Dean Starkman at Columbia Journalism Review started it by challenging “the limited vision of the news gurus,” a crew which he argues should include journalism prognosticators Jeff Jarvis, Clay Shirky, and Jay Rosen. “Together,” writes Starkman, “their ideas form what I will call the future-of-news (FON) consensus.”

According to this consensus, the future points toward a network-driven system of journalism in which news organizations will play a decreasingly important role. News won’t be collected and delivered in the traditional sense. It will be assembled, shared, and to an increasing degree, even gathered, by a sophisticated readership, one that is so active that the word “readership” will no longer apply. Let’s call it a user-ship or, better, a community. This is an interconnected world in which boundaries between storyteller and audience dissolve into a conversation between equal parties, the implication being that the conversation between reporter and reader was a hierarchical relationship, as opposed to, say, a simple division of labor.

Needless to say, Starkman doesn’t buy it. Shirky has now responded with an essay of his own, “Institutions, Confidence, and the News Crisis.”

Here’s the most compelling bit from Shirky’s reply:

To my eye, Starkman stacks the deck when comparing Plans A and B. He lists only three examples of successful “FON” journalism (US Attorney firings, “macacca,” and “bittergate“), but his recounting of the glories of print go back to Ida Tarbell. Tarbell was indeed a terrific reporter, but her byline has been somewhat scarce of late, given she’s been dead 70 years. Comparing a 5 year stretch of recent experiments with the greatest hits of newspapering since the McKinley administration may rally the home team, but it doesn’t make for a particularly informative comparison.

Like a Yeats of the newspaper world, Starkman yearns for the restoration of a culture considerably purer than the actual newspaper business has ever been. Reading Confidence Game, you’d never know that most papers are not like the NY Times, that most of what appears in their pages is syndicated, that sports is often better represented on the masthead than hard news. You’d never know that more American papers printed today will include a horoscope than international news. You’d never know that newspapers are institutions where grown men and women are assigned to write stories about dogs catching frisbees.

Saying newspapers will provide a stable home for reporters, just as soon as we figure out how to make newspapers stable, is like saying that if we had some ham, we could have a ham sandwich, if we had some bread. We need to support the people who cover hard news, but when you see a metro daily for a town of 100,000 that employs only six such reporters (just 10% of the masthead, much less total staff), saving the entire edifice just to support that handful looks a lot harder than just finding new ways to support them directly.

This view is, as Starkman says, anti-institutional, starting as it does from the premise that the outside world is changing faster than most newspapers’ adaptive capabilities. They have responded to 20 consecutive quarters ad revenue decline with the evisceration of international desks and newsroom staff. More is on the way. No medium has ever survived the indifference of 25 year olds.

Kelly Burdick is the former executive editor of Melville House.