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Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable (shirky.com)
99 points by rms on Mar 14, 2009 | hide | past | web | favorite | 37 comments



People tend to overestimate the value of newspaper journalism. Paul Graham does a great job of exploding the myth of business journalism in his "submarine" essay. Financial journalism has obviously been just as bad.

The worst, though, is political journalism. Most "journalism" is simply writers being a conduit for leaks and bureaucratic turf wars. Woodward and Bernstein did not uncover Watergate. They were tools of one branch of power ( the FBI ) that wanted to strike against another branch ( the Nixon White House). The crime was not discovered by journalists, but by illegal FBI surveillance. ( http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20081222_death_deep_throat_an... ) It would actually be an enormous improvement if these agencies just said what they wanted to say through blogs, rather than filtering it through "journalists".


Seems like you're painting some pretty broad strokes here. There's a difference between national and local political news. There's a difference between national and local business news. Even within local there are many flavors of news (small-town, big-city, suburban paper, etc.). And, though you don't see it, there's a heck of a lot more local journalism that gets done every day than there is national.


RE: http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20081222_death_deep_throat_an...

Well this certainly isn't journalism. It's just a big conspiracy theory with no sources to back it up.


>>> It would actually be an enormous improvement if these agencies just said what they wanted to say through blogs, rather than filtering it through "journalists". <<<

But as you wrote, they will just say what they want to say, which might non necessarily by the truth...so while it might be entertaining to read such a blog, ultimately I want to know what each party is saying, also with some background research, and that is a work of a journalist. Of course, another issue is whether current journalism plays such a role...


> myth of business journalism in his "submarine" essay

Fascinating article! Thanks for the tip. Submitted :-)


I love this quote:

When a 14 year old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a problem.


It's wrong though.

The better insight is "When a 14 year old kid can blow up your business in his spare time, not because he hates you but because he loves you, then you got a huge opportunity and you better damn well figure out how you can engage that 14yr old as an ally/partner.


"Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism."

Right now, I don't see any real journalism that occurs only in the online world. And we really do need it to keep watch on those in power. I understand his argument that journalism is the underlying thing we need, and newspapers are merely the current vehicle for providing it. But in my opinion, when some really great online innovation happens with regards to journalism, then it would be OK for newspapers to be pushed out. But until then, I think we should save the newspapers.


This stuff takes time. Talking Points Memo wasn't built in a day. Here's what I'm doing in Chicago. It's not perfect, but it's working. Let me know what you think.

1. Build a social news site for local stuff. Gather an audience of local news junkies who like sharing, rating and discussing the best links from across the city. This is a somewhat efficient way to generate pageviews and gather like-minded folks together. Exhibit A: http://www.windycitizen.com the first local, social news site.

2. When you find crazy power-users of your social news site who have specific passions for topics, create blogs for them and nurture their interest in writing about these niche subjects. Exhibit B: http://dailydaley.windycitizen.com a group blog written by a handful of our power users that posts a daily briefing on the mayor of Chicago's appearances, schedule, comments and coverage. We have 40 more blogs where that came from, of varying quality but with some really good ones here and there http://www.windycitizen.com/blogs

3. Team up with local hackers for the occasional special project that scorches the local sites. Exhibit C: http://election.windycitizen.com, a rails app built by HN member collint

4. When you feel the social news site is growing consistently and having an influence in the community, hire a part-time ad sales person to develop relationships with local businesses who want to reach your audience. Exhibit B: The Craigslist ad I posted last week: http://chicago.craigslist.org/chc/sls/1071989015.html I've had 5 great resumes sent my way so far and am excited to put this piece of the plan into motion.

5. Once you get $300-400 dollars a week in profit coming in, you can afford to hire an honest-to-goodness pro journalist to cover whatever it is your community is interested in that week, scooping the dying local papers at least once a week. If the story has national implications, you pitch it to Gawker, Politico and the HuffPo and rack up the backlinks and google mojo, making your social news aggregator even more powerful.

6. Add more writers to your blogs, which are essentially open source journalism projects. Some may grow to be powerful/influential in their own right, letting you sell more niche advertising or get direct donations.

7. Get to the point where your front page links are driving 1,500-2,000 readers to the stories that make them (which would make you the most powerful traffic-supplier for local sites), your blogs are breaking news every now and then and doing a great job of covering ongoing stories a la TPM. And your special reports, directed in part by the votes and story submissions of your users are setting the agenda in your community.

8. Repeat elsewhere.

Am curious to hear what folks think. The limiting agent for us is always technical development. We're using Drupal and I've learned that 9 out of 10 contributed modules either don't work or are so poorly-designed you'd never want to use them on a production site. This has meant paying and begging friends for custom dev work and me having to learn a lot more Drupal than I want. But that's the thing that I'm trying out here in Chicago. I think of it as a kind of open source newspaper.


This is fascinating! I know you wrote me about your site a few days ago, but I only saw the front page: the more detailed expansion is an excellent idea. I'd love to see if you can get to the point where you're hiring journalists. If that goes well, you might have just started the first online local newspaper.

Add more writers to your blogs, which are essentially open source journalism projects.

That's a great mindset. Make blogs into projects and see what works and what doesn't.


Thanks. Your front-page critique was really helpful. I'm working on putting a few of your suggestions into practice.

The design thing that drives me mad is figuring out what the front page should look like. How do you combine a Digg/Reddit interface with original content without short-changing one or the other? If there are any pro or amateur UI designers out there with advice, I'm all ears. I've created about 40 front page mockups in the last year and finally just decided to stick the original stuff in the sidebar to focus on getting the social news up and running as best possible.


Inspiring idea. Have you considered aggregating the various twitter feeds of your bloggers?

How reliant are you on your own personal knowledge of Chicago to make this viable?

Were you inspired by similar projects in other cities?


1. I actually started work on an uber-twitter feed for all our members (we've almost reached our first 1,000 registered users). It seemed like a fun idea, but what's the use case? What made you suggest it?

2. In all honesty, I have very little prior personal knowledge of Chicago and few, if any personal connections here in the city. I'd certainly do a lot better if I had family here and knew lots of folks, but I'm getting by. In the last month I've started meeting with local media who are seeing what we're up and wanting to get on board with our voting buttons on their sites.

3. Nope. In fact, everyone I pitched this idea to told me it was awful, including Kevin Rose himself. I'm doing it anyway. Like I said, this is far from a success, but it's growing and people who find us are signing up and getting involved.


Do we really need journalists? We already have political parties.

Newspapers in 1900 published political speeches in their entirety. Over the years political reporting has cut down on the politicians' own words and created an important role for journalist as meta-politician, an intermediary between citizen and politician.

We read the newspaper to find out what Labour say, what the LibDems say, what the Conservatives say, and instead we get the journalists version. If it is just neutral reporting we could go instead to the parties websites and get their views directly. If the political news has been spun by the journalist we are more strongly motivated to go to the websites to get the news straight from the horses mouth. The journalist owes his position in the system due to the need to own and operate expensive printing presses in order to disseminate information.

I've been making this point for a few years and at first it was a pretty stupid point. The websites of the political parties were crap. But my point makes sense, and on checking again today I find the websites are much improved.


Relative to offline journalism, the amount of work that gets done by online-only outlets is small, but it's certainly not zero. Look at places like Slate (disclosure, I work for Newsweek, and we share a corporate parent with Slate) and Salon. Most major outlets also have "web exclusive" reporting, which while frequently soft can occasionally surprise.


Really? I see it all the time. In Tech, you have sites like Techcrunch, Engadget, and Mashable. For science you have sites like Climate Audit and Real Climate. For world affairs, Michael Totten, Michael Yon, Exile, and numerous blogs. Economics, Brad Setser and Naked Capitalism.

In fact, it's hard to think of a single topic in which the best coverage comes from the old school media.


In Tech, you have sites like Techcrunch... That's a fail right there. Techcrunch is the bete noir of tech journalism, as Last.FM showed, and as Alex Payne ranted about: http://al3x.net/2009/03/03/towards-better-technology-journal...

The larger problem isn't really coverage however -- it's not about getting the stories out there, although that will ultimately become a problem as societies formerly brought together by newspapers fracture into interest groups. There's no shortage of coverage online.

The problem is in the reporting. Many of the things you link to are actually about commentary on reporting done by others ("commentary" is even in Naked Capitalism's site description). The actual reporting and investigation is, by and large, still done by journalists working for newspapers.

Print media and businesses supported by it, like the newswires, are the wellspring of the vast majority of our news, and we drink from the river of information they ultimately become. Formerly the problem was merely that the wellsprings were tainted by bias and poor stewardship, and we were trying to make online solutions to clean it up -- which proved to be a difficult task.

Now the wellsprings are drying up, and we've got an even tougher job to do.


The actual reporting and investigation is, by and large, still done by journalists working for newspapers.

Most reporting I see is just summarization of press releases or a collection of quotes from contacts of the journalist. The analysis of sites like Naked Capitalism is much informative and hard hitting. Do have good examples of actual investigation done by newspapers? It seems very rare to me.

As for Techcrunch, it's by no means perfect, but it's better than anything in the newspapers.


Most reporting I see is just summarization of press releases or a collection of quotes from contacts of the journalist.

I tried to address this -- this used to be the problem we faced: newspapers had grown complacent and corpulent and were content to rest on their laurels, and we were inventing online ways of giving them reasonable competition.

But now we have to try and replace them wholesale, which really isn't easy. News reporting requires a lot of people to do very boring things for a long amount of time. Online hasn't yet been able to come up with the pay that would reward them for doing it, and the opportunity cost for reporters of doing it for free is, in general, far too high.

Also, I think you're confusing analysis with reporting. Comment is free, the saying goes, because it doesn't take much to analyse something: you just need a brain and a comfy chair. The reporting is the hard bit: sending someone to dig through files, to attend the dull meetings, to nose around.

I can think of countless examples of newspaper investigation, but they're probably going to be meaningless to you as I'm in Scotland. But here, a head of government (Henry McLeish) and the leader of a major political party (Wendy Alexander) were both forced to resign for scandals uncovered by print journalists. It's local reporting like this that will ultimately suffer most.

(As for Techcrunch: it's covering tech. If the web can't do better than that on its home turf, it doesn't have a hope in hell of doing it for difficult stuff like local politics. That's why it's such an embarrassing example for all of us).


newspapers had grown complacent and corpulent and were content to rest on their laurels,

There never was a golden age of journalism. Before the FTC and the Fairness Doctrine, yellow journalism used to routinely whip people into frenzied states of war mongering. During the Fairness Doctrine era reporting was bland and extremely biased towards the status quo. The journalism of today mostly alternates between summarized press releases and tabloid smears.

Further note that much of the raw material of news reporting is now online: press releases, CSPAN videos, documents, reports, economic statistics. When everything is online, there is much less reason to attend meetings and sift through files (not that pint journalists used to do that anyway). Your arm chair online journalists can report on these just as well, if not better, than your on the ground news paper journalist. For example, the site Read the Stimulus ( http://readthestimulus.org/ ) has done the best work on what is actually contained in the stimulus package. A blog Verum Serum did a better job investigating the Obama - Bill Ayers connection than any newspaper ( see this post http://www.verumserum.com/?p=2907 ). The best economic writing comes from Brad Setser who routinely analyses the data from its original sources.

Even Naked Capitalism, which routinely references newspapers, usually only does so to quote a bank executive or a government official. Naked Capitalism almost never relies on "investigations" done by print journalists. Without newspapers, those officials could just post their quote directly to a blog, without having to go through a newspaper.

Most newspaper journalism has always sucked. Most online journalism sucks. It takes time and patience to build a set of sources you can trust. In my opinion, the rise of the internet has both increased the level of noise and crappy sources, but also increased the number of truly worthwhile sources. I now find, that in almost every subject, the best source of information is an online news source. Can you name one subject on which the best print news source is better than the best online source?


Off the top of my head, no, but that's because the best are now both.

But it's the wrong question entirely. There's nothing at all relevant in the medium. Print isn't better because it's on paper, but because it has a business model that up until now has allowed for lots of journalists to get paid.

Can you name one website that financially supports 300 journalists? There are countless thousands of newspapers that do.

Sure, some of their work - regardless of what you think of it's quality, it was the best we had - can be replaced by volunteers, and some of it we won't miss in the least. But a sizeable amount we will. (It's not the quotes officials are happy to put out on blogs or otherwise that matter; it's those that are forced out of them).

The solution to this problem isn't going to come from going "pah, who needs them, they suck anyway amirite?", which is how your first post reads. It's going to come from admitting where online is weak, what is currently unique about print reporting, and working out the hell we can rescue those parts before we lose them entirely.

A free press is a hallmark of a democracy. We don't have an online one yet, just a bloated op-ed section. We need to get one, fast.


Off the top of my head, no, but that's because the best are now both.

Let me rephrase, can you name a single subject, where the best source of information is an old school, mass media source ( ie, a source funded mainly by in print issues, distributed to a mass audience).

(It's not the quotes officials are happy to put out on blogs or otherwise that matter; it's those that are forced out of them).

That happens on blogs too. For instance, Techcrunch runs a nasty article calling out Google on some issue, and Google is forced to respond on its blog.

A free press is a hallmark of a democracy. We don't have an online one yet, just a bloated op-ed section. We need to get one, fast

Since we never had a good mass media, and never will, it is more realistic to discuss how to alter the structure of government, to make it less dependent on the whims of the masses.


can you name a single subject, where the best source of information is an old school, mass media source ( ie, a source funded mainly by in print issues, distributed to a mass audience).

Sure. Scottish politics. The best two sources of information on political life in Scotland are the country's two quality newspapers - The Scotsman and the Herald. (This isn't saying much: appropriately, they're both very, very poor shadows of their former selves). They are far and away better than the Scottish TV news, which mostly reports on their reporting or on events which are a matter of public record. Online coverage that isn't merely opinion or repurposing from the print stuff is incredibly scarce.

Without those papers -- and both are in fairly unhappy financial situations -- I'm not sure who is going to cover this stuff at all, in fact. The country already suffers from a deep deficit of investigative reporting: many of the local councils are virtual fiefdoms. And don't think it doesn't matter on a wider scale: The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) and former Bank of Scotland (HBOS) both played key roles in bringing disaster down on the UK and global economies.

Since we never had a good mass media, and never will, it is more realistic to discuss how to alter the structure of government, to make it less dependent on the whims of the masses

I don't grant the premise: we may not have ever had a mass media that lived up to our ideals, but I'd say we certainly have one that attempted to: Watergate (the entrance of which is rapidly becoming the Godwining of dying-newspaper threads) is proof enough of that.

Ultimately, the role that journalism provides is accountability. It holds power to account. If you can come up with a structure of government that takes into account human nature and is one where the rulers don't need to be held to account by the governed and has a realistic implementation plan, I'll be amazed.

But I think it might be a whole lot easier to sort out how we do the accountability thing without print media. Even though I think that's going to be hard :)


I don't know anything about Scottish politics, so I cannot comment. But the best source of information on British/EU politics is a blog: http://eureferendum.blogspot.com/

I don't grant the premise: we may not have ever had a mass media that lived up to our ideals, but I'd say we certainly have one that attempted to: Watergate

Watergate wasn't investigative journalism, it was the Post being a conduit for leaks by the FBI: http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/20081222_death_deep_throat_an...

If you can come up with a structure of government that takes into account human nature and is one where the rulers don't need to be held to account by the governed and has a realistic implementation plan, I'll be amazed.

Here's one simple solution: Allow people to sell their votes.

A second solution: Competitive government. Delegate all policy (outside of defense) back to the states (or cities in the case of Scotland). Then instead of having citizens worry about policy, they can worry about results. The rulers will enact good policies not because they fear bad press, but because otherwise smart people will go live in other states.

Other solutions: http://unqualified-reservations.blogspot.com/2007/04/formali...

or http://unenumerated.blogspot.com/2007/05/juritopia.html

And of course, there is always good old fashioned monarchy. Have you ever read up on what the old European monarchies were actually like, in terms of taxes, economic growth, and personal freedom?


I'm not sure what definition of "best" you're using, but there aren't many metrics on which that site comes out top that can be also used to measure the value of reporting.

For one thing it's biased as all hell -- "Euroscepticism" is a particular right-wing British position -- and while there are many tedious arguments to be had about the impossibility of objectivity and how we're in a post-objective world and whatnot, it's surely not a bad thing to try and aim for. But far more importantly, the site's mainly comment/analysis, like we've been discussing. The majority of stuff I can see on the front page now is commentary riffing off from links to print media websites. It's good commentary if you like the beat they're thumping on their tub, but it's a million miles away from reporting.

Watergate wasn't investigative journalism

Ok, fine, Abu Ghraib. Broken by Seymour Hersh, based on a report that would otherwise never have seen the light of day. Or the majority of those on this list: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pulitzer_Prize_for_Investigativ...

I'm going to let the Nu-Government thing slide, as it's not really germane to this. Suffice to say that I think all of these options (particularly the one that assumes people will find it easiest to uproot and move their families to express their opinions on their rulers) appear considerably more difficult to achieve than finding new and reliable sources of funding for investigative reporting.


Would you consider an article like this reporting or commentary: http://eureferendum.blogspot.com/2009/03/yesterday-in-parlia... ? How is this different than reporting in the print magazines? And of course there is this gem of investigative reporting ( although in a way it is "riffing" off of the main stream press): http://eureferendum.blogspot.com/2009/03/yesterday-in-parlia...

Of course most of EU Referendum's articles are interpretation rather than raw reports from primary sources. But so are most Times articles. From the perspective of a reader with limited time, interpretation and summary is much more important than raw facts.

As for bias - sorry to bore you with my tedious arguments, but every source is biased. What matters is whether the source gives you an accurate view of reality. Or another way of putting it, a source of information is good if it leads you to not being surprised by future events, helps you make accurate predictions, and aids in making good decisions. I find European Referendum to be good on these accounts. On the other hand, I have found the NY Times to be a consistently crappy source of information ( the War in Iraq, financial crisis, and many others), and so I have mostly stopped reading it.

Ok, fine, Abu Ghraib. Broken by Seymour Hersh, based on a report that would otherwise never have seen the light of day.

What? Did Seymour Hersh secretly trail Pentagon officials and listen to their conversations until they revealed their dark secrets? No. The report was leaked by someone in the Pentagon who wanted the public to know about it. If Seymour Hersh hadn't been the lucky winner, the leaker could have distributed it to any number of people, including bloggers. Again, the press is not doing investigative journalism, it's being a conduit for leaks.

Suffice to say that I think all of these options appear considerably more difficult to achieve than finding new and reliable sources of funding for investigative reporting.

I actually have no doubt that journalism in its current form will continue. Foundations will fund the NYTimes if no one else does. And there is always the government funding route ... I just don't think that the current system of journalism, or the system of journalism in the 1970's, leads to good government.

(particularly the one that assumes people will find it easiest to uproot and move their families to express their opinions on their rulers)

Only a small fraction of families need to be mobile in order to properly incentivize the government to rule well.


I was taking you seriously until you claimed that that blog was the "best source of information on British/EU politics". Uh-huh.


What's your favorite source?


I guess a combination of the Guardian, the Telegraph, the IHT and the Economist? A spectrum of political interests, covered by motivated, professional reporters?

I am probably missing one or two good sources but that should cover all the bases really.


EU Referendum doesn't have the breadth of those sources, but in terms of quality, it's the best at the areas it does cover. I don't follow European news that much, but on the American side I have a collection of online sources so I get both breadth and quality. Together, the hand picked sources are far better than the NY Times and the Economist.


> Ultimately, the role that journalism provides is accountability. It holds power to account.

Actually, it doesn't.

In the pollyanna world, readers might, based on what journalists found and printed. But in this one, journalists bootlick for access and reprint press releases.


Choice quotes:

"When someone demands to know how we are going to replace newspapers, they are really demanding to be told that we are not living through a revolution. They are demanding to be told that old systems won’t break before new systems are in place. They are demanding to be told that ancient social bargains aren’t in peril, that core institutions will be spared, that new methods of spreading information will improve previous practice rather than upending it. They are demanding to be lied to.

There are fewer and fewer people who can convincingly tell such a lie.

[...]

Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.

When we shift our attention from ’save newspapers’ to ’save society’, the imperative changes from ‘preserve the current institutions’ to ‘do whatever works.’ And what works today isn’t the same as what used to work."


I used to think that the problem with newspapers and journalism was a revenue problem. (e.g. CL took their classified ad revenue). Like a lot of people, I thought that eventually someone would figure out a new source of stable revenues and all would be fine. I now see that the problem is much bigger than that.

I think the important point that is easy to miss is that we are in the very early stages of a major social revolution, probably the biggest in human history. Institutions like the Catholic church or the NYT and the MSM (today) are what communicate and sustain the culture (whether you agreed with them or not). This is what the internet has broken. It takes time for new institutions to form but that is the process that is underway right now and that process will probably take decades.


This entry in how the unthinkable unfolds doesn't seem to fit with the others in that same paragraph (because the others, while unthinkable, are consistent with experience), and stands out to me:

Digital advertising would reduce inefficiencies, and therefore profits.

Other than people exploiting inefficiencies through having a monopoly, I can't think of one case where reduction of inefficiencies also reduces profit. The problem is that those who thought that were willing to make changes, as this article points out, but not the kind of changes that would exploit the increases in efficiencies.


"The expense of printing created an environment where Wal-Mart was willing to subsidize the Baghdad bureau." I know this is figurative language, but Shirky made a bad choice -- Wal-Mart doesn't advertise in newspapers much. They experimented with a large push three years ago, and decided it wasn't worthwhile. ( source: http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/news/article_display... )


Irrespective of whether you agree with all the points here--and there are many thoughtful ones--let's all take a moment to agree the writing here is excellent.


Very good writing. You have to distrust yourself a little after reading an article like this. Am I persuaded by the message, or charmed by the style?




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