November 27, 2012

Clay Shirky - new day, same old dishonest New Media blather

Well, Clay Shirky, this time with two co-authors, has largely “done it again.”

He’s commented mordantly on the financial future of journalism without major overhauls, while again largely dissing paywalls as part of the financial side of that overhaul.

As part of that, he (like Jay Rosen and others) has again — deliberately, I have to think — misunderstood Stewart Brand’s “information wants to be free” idea.

He’s again overtouted crowdsourcing’s potential value.

And, he’s exacerbated that by now touting the bright, shiny future of machine-generated journalism, while writing nary a word about ethical and other problems that have already cropped up with machine-generated journalism.

This is all in a new report, portentiously, or perhaps pretentiously, titled, “Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present.”

Here’s some insights from the PDF of the report.

Page 12 of text:
Web advertising has never generated anything like the same revenue per reader, mobile looks even worse, and the continuing rise in online advertising generally is now often bypassing traditional news properties altogether. Meanwhile, hoped-for sources of direct fees—pay walls, micropayments, mobile apps, digital subscriptions—have either failed or underperformed.

Of these, digital subscriptions, as practiced at the Los Angeles Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, New York Times and others have done best, but even here the net effect of subscriptions has not made up the print shortfall. Furthermore, because most digital subscriptions are designed to increase print circulation, the short-term effect of digital subscriptions has the immediate effect of making the papers more reliant on print revenue, despite the long-term deterioration of print.

We do not believe the continued erosion of traditional ad revenue will be made up on other platforms over the next three to five years. For the vast majority of news organizations, the next phase of their existence will resemble the last one—cost reduction as a forced move, albeit in a less urgent (and, we hope, more strategic) way, one that takes into account new news techniques and organizational models.
Generally agreed on the “outlook” side, including for mobile. But, if that is what it is, for short, and even medium, term, it makes sense that paywalls should in part be used to drive people (Back) to print. Also, Shirky fails to mention his past general opposition to paywalls.

Page 13 of text:
This restructuring will mean rethinking every organizational aspect of news production—increased openness to partnerships; increased reliance on publicly available data; increased use of individuals, crowds and machines to produce raw material; even increased reliance on machines to produce some of the output.
Shirky et al should know the limitations of machine-based journalism. In case you don’t, they include possible spamming susceptibility roughly along the lines of computer-based trading on Wall Street having computers ping each other back and forth; computer inability to “read” human emotions/motives; and more. For the trio not to report on the problems that have already happened with computer-generated reporting from the human side, such as fake bylines, is simply unacceptable.

Page 22ff of text — The trio talk about the crowd as journalists, while appearing to conflate crowd journalism and crowd eyewitnessing taken to the next phase. An eyewitness with a Twitter account isn’t necessarily a journalist; often, rather, he or she is simply an eyewitness broadcasting his/her observations before being queried by a journalist. There’s really not, IMO, a huge difference between this and old-fashioned tips. There is some difference, but it’s not huge. And for the trio to not even see Twitter eyewitnesses as a continuum to this, again … they’re wanting to see what they want to see, just as I am. As for “social” breaking the reliance on old sources … maybe, or maybe new social sources soon enough become the new old sources.

Crowds and photos? How many crowds, or individuals within a crowd, know journalistic ethics on things such as not photoshopping photos?
Or, the guy who did the fake Tweet of false “news” in NYC during Hurricane Sandy?

Related to that, on page 88ff, the group tends to overestimate the power of social media, in specific, in things such as the Arab Spring.

Page 25ff of text — machine journalism. If it’s being done by algorithms, there’s still humans who are needed to set and tweak the algorithm’s parameters. And, as Facebook users know, some algorithms suck. They hugely suck.

On news as institutional and other things … yes, changes are still coming, even to smaller newspapers, whether desired or not. But, the money issue will still be there, and in ways that Shirky et al don’t cover.

Foundational funding, for example? What if the foundation wants particular news covered, or wants a particular “angle”? What if it doesn’t want other news covered? That said, on 108ff, the trio does discuss the issue of further blurring PR and journalism.

Page 90ff — the financial cat is out of the bag. Shirky et al clearly believe that fair use means the old “information wants to be free,” and in its normal, misquoted form.

Per a previous blog post of mine:

Just maybe, more newspaper execs (and “Webbies” in general), are reading the full paragraph that contains Stewart Brand’s “information wants to be free” statement.

If you aren’t familiar with it, I’ll post it now:
On the one hand information wants to be expensive, because it's so valuable. The right information in the right place just changes your life. On the other hand, information wants to be free, because the cost of getting it out is getting lower and lower all the time. So you have these two fighting against each other.
The issue at hand is what “free” means, whether to Brand himself, or others.

Also, per this American Journalism Review article, new buyers of newspapers, for whatever reasons they’re buying them, see paywalls as part of the business-side equation.

Indeed, as I blogged last week, many such new owners, and more and more legacy owners, are simply ignoring the new media fluffers like Shirky on paywalls.

And, at bottom line, per one commenter in the AJR story, a newspaper (or a TV station, for that matter) is a business. Yes, the business part of the current model, especially on print journalism, is what’s most broken in the journalism field.

Related to that, as Evgeny Morozov and others have noted, most the new media fluffers have spent most to all their careers teaching at taxpayer-funded public universities. It’s a luxury that people actually owning media operations don’t have.

 That said, the AJR story also notes, by taking elbow-throwing rich new owners as an example, of what could go wrong with foundational funding.

Page 109ff — by giving “shoutouts” to the likes of Twitter, Wikipedia and others, aren’t the trio trying to establish new “legacy organizations”?

Page 113 — This simply doesn’t make sense:
The wastefulness of pack journalism and the empty calories of unimproved wire service news are both bad fits for most institutions in the current environment. The organizations that set out to provide a public with a large part of the news will more often be aggregators, in the manner of Huffington Post or BuzzFeed.
Uhh, aggregators still survive, in part, on the “empty calories of unimproved wire service news.” And, isn’t commentary a filter, and any alleged improvement in the eye of the beholder?

That last graf just showed me that Shirky will write what he wants to write. Touting aggregators, without even noting that much of their aggregation is still wire service, is untruthful. Also not noting that much of the rest of the aggregate is unpaid contributions, much of the rest of the rest is vanity blogging, and that Huff Post has gotten its hands slapped on fair use issues before, is more dishonesty.

Finally, let me add one other important observation.

The Shirkys of the world, and even somewhat, people on the other side of the coin on what to do about media’s future, are writing about six-day and seven-day dailies.

The non-daily community newspaper world is somewhat a different critter.

First, folks like us are jack-of-all-trades already. I write; I edit; I shoot photos; I’ve occasionally shot video; I Tweet; I update the website, etc.

Second, we don’t use wire services.

Third, our more local advertising is less in flux.

That said, some of the disruptiveness of the Net is still here. And community newspaper companies are at times as slow to adapt as their bigger brethren.

For example, my current newspaper company still has no paywalls on any of its newspapers’ webpages, to the best of my knowledge. That’s going down the same road as big dailies did a decade ago, and you KNOW it’s coming. It’s why my own (current) profession frustrates me at times.

Another difference? Digital dimes for print dollars on the ad side? Most small town papers’ ad staffs don’t even know how to sell web-specific ads. That’s another reason to NOT post content unless it’s paywalled.

Update, Feb. 22, 2013: Massimo Pigliucci weighs in well on this issue.

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