‘Accountability journalism’ is at risk, says Clay Shirky

September 22, 2009

Clay Shirky and Shorenstein Center director Alex S. Jones.

Clay Shirky and Shorenstein Center director Alex S. Jones.

September 22, 2009 — In his Shorenstein Center brown-bag talk, “Internet Issues Facing Newspapers,” Clay Shirky described the changing news landscape that has put accountability journalism at risk, and he outlined a “journalistic ecosystem” that is needed to preserve essential watchdog role of the press.

Shirky, who writes on social and economic effects of Internet technologies at New York University, said that “newspapers’ ability to produce accountability journalism is shrinking,” and that these changes are “secular, monotonic and irreversible rather than being merely cyclic.”

Historically, advertisers relied on print publications to reach the public, and newspapers used the profits to support accountability journalism. Because advertisers had nowhere else to go, Shirky said, they both paid too much for ads and were underserved by the publications. Neither of these are true in the current market.

The way news is bundled for print editions is also changing. “The aggregation of news sources has gone from being a service-side to client-side operation,” as consumers now determine content rather than producers. Consumers are “not interested in single omnibus publications,” resulting in an audience “now being assembled not by the paper but by other members of the audience.”

A consequence of the diminishing presence of accountability journalism is that moderate- and small-sized cities and towns risk sinking “into casual endemic civic corruption,” he said, as authorities are no longer held accountable by journalists.

Replacing newspapers is not only an impossible task, but also an unnecessary one, Shirky said. He sees a future workable model as a conglomeration of multiple news organizations that would overlap and provide a small percentage of journalism individually, but taken as a whole, represent the same position of accountability held by newspapers in the 20th century.

The transition to a new news model won’t be seamless, Shirky feels. “We are headed into a long trough of decline in accountability journalism because the old models are breaking faster than the new models will be put in their place.”

This article was written by Janell Sims and the photos taken by Leighton Walter Kille, both of the Shorenstein Center.