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Are You OK, Clay Shirky? Being Positive About Shifting Media Trends

Poynter published a portion of work by Clay Shirky today that editorializes the shifting creation, dissemination, and consumption of information. 

Shirky aptly describes the shift from a centralized to decentralized information sharing process, but he provides little way forward except to say “just get over it now.”

I think that’s a cop out for someone who wrote a classic standard of celebratory decentralization. I don’t think he goes far enough in separating himself from all of the really bad ideas that limited free speech for millions of Americans, and I wonder why. Centralized opinion-making died a long time ago. There’s no need to compare today to a time when most Americans didn’t have a voice, a right that we champion as a center piece of post-modern democracy.

Sigh. I guess some people need to hear it: 

There’s no way to get Cronkite-like consensus without someone like Cronkite, and there’s no way to get someone like Cronkite in a world with an Internet; there will be no more men like him, because there will be no more jobs like his. 

What purpose does it serve to reflect upon a time when only a small subset of people were considered worthy of holding an opinion?

The old days, where marginal opinions meant marginal availability, have given way to a world where all utterances, true or false, are a click away. Judgement about legitimate consensus is becoming a critical journalistic skill, one that traditional training and mores don’t prepare most practitioners for.

We have no time to waste on complaining.

What Mr. Shirky should have said is that people need critical thinking skills (he calls it judgement, but that is quite subjective). According to the author, most professionals are not trained to have critical thinking skills, which brings me to my key criticism: If the author believes media organizations do not prepare their writers to have critical thinking skills, how can the industry be expected to prepare itself to cover news in the first place, regardless of shifting cultural trends?  

Shirky even goes so far as to end his piece on this audacious point: 

Now, and from now on, journalists are going to be participants in a far more argumentative sphere than anything anyone alive has ever seen. The question for us is not whether we want this increase in argumentation — no one is asking us, and there is, in fact, no one who could ask us — but rather how we adapt ourselves to it as it unfolds. And the two tools we’re most practiced at using — scarcity of public speech, and force applied to defectors from mainstream consensus — are getting less viable every day.

"Consensus"? I think he means "group think." 

So, what is the good news that Shirky misses? Our world is already well-equipped with people who have tools to weather trends: determination, fact-checking, and listening. We are in a new world that offers people more responsibility and freedom of thought. We should celebrate this age, not be afraid of it. 

News Summary for Monday, February 14, 2011

Republicans Quickly Reject Obama Budget Proposal (Los Angeles Times – February 14, 2011)

Listen to… Runaway, by Kanye West


Obama Budget Targets Brand Name Medicines (Reuters – February 14, 2011)

Listen to… Ego, by The Sounds


Algeria Unrest: Akbou Protesters Clash with Police (BBC – February 14, 2011)

Listen to… Let Me Go, by Phantagram


Worries Surface Over Power of D Börse-NYSE Euronext Link (Financial Times – February 14, 2011)

Listen to… Houdini, by Foster the People


At Media Companies, a Nation of Serfs (New York Times – February 14, 2011)

Listen to… Say Aha, by Santogold, TEPR Remix


Discount Dilemma: Online Shoppers Say Flower Groupon Was No Great Deal  (TIME – February 14, 2011)

Listen to… Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’, by Michael Jackson


Yes, Lady Gaga Arrived In an Egg (CNN – February 14, 2011)

Listen to… Acceptable in the 80’s, by Calvin Harris

Happy Valentine’s Day, Media!

Search/Internet providers want to “provide” more than just other people’s content these days. Like a possessive Casanova, search providers have learned that the best way to control the outcome of their fragile relationship with a fickle beloved (the online searcher) is to buy as many things, as many ideas, as many brands and flavors as possible for the permanent, intellectual, cyberspace pleasure of their lover.

The media has never has a problem attracting an audience because they are always hot. Everyone wants the content they have because it is always new and always has some unique value — handwritten, documented essays or breaking headlines are like information crack to a global, addicted audience always in need for more information. The problem is, the search user never picks up the check — and the newspapers, bloggers, and online magazines always end up footing the bill.

The ability of finding information online has caused the traditional owners of access to information, and creators of this content, to compete with one another for the increasingly-intertwined transaction of information: the process by which information is sought after, provided, and received. Both sides lose because they are competing against each other in a cannabalistic fashion.

Example: Wall Street Journal’s pay-wall. It is a total failure. All you have to do is search for the exact title of the article you want to read, and most search engines will find the link to the full article. Fail !

With search providers losing money on the access-side, and newspapers losing money on the content-side, both industries were whisked away by the public access movement.

But get the ever-loving and wealthy search providers on a special date with a newspaper in need of a permanent, loyal, paying fan base? Happy Valentine’s Day, Media!

AOL’s recent purchase of Huffington Post is the price a search provider will (and should) pay for owning the content they used to just find. Search providers are known as ignorant monsters of senseless aggregation — and have suffered because of that reputation. With the recent AOL purchase of Huffington Post, AOL has rejected blind aggregation for blind ownership, something nearly not as offensive to the sensitive palette of the internet, and likely to have a better return in the long-run as long as the investment is well-placed. Newspapers are the real deal: high maintenance, high reward*.

*Superficially, at least. Some media, fiercely independent, like to stick to themselves. It’s like players dating players: eventually one or both become disinterested. See: Tina Brown. Can Tina Brown survive in a post-AOLHuffpost world? She is competing against more than just the newspaper this time around.

Buying media is probably a better path than that of a Yahoo or Google, who for some odd reason are still fooling around with aggregation technology. Really, Yahoo? Do you think you know what I want to read in terms of news that doesn’t even exist because it’s in the future? If Yahoo knows what I want to know in the future, then I’m definitely subscribing to Yahoo Astrology right now!

Or look at the iPad newspaper: it’s the internet news version of a blow-up doll. Pathetic, iPad: now you own your own fantasy girlfriend completely separate from all outside media interaction or debate, the cornerstone of a free press. Just pathetic. Good luck with that.

Prediction #1: iPad, and all isolationist news, fails.

My advice, internet/search providers: settle down with a few innovative newspapers on an annual-contract basis and get the best of both worlds: owning some content but still have the freedom to shop around.

Prediction #2: MSN, Yahoo, and Google follow in the steps of AOL and enter into talks to buy/borrow rights to content-producing news organizations.