Most journalism isn’t worth saving

In a lengthy new post, Clay Shirky hits on a point that I think doesn’t get mentioned enough:

Here’s what the newspaper business sounds like: the modestly talented son of the founder can generate double-digit margins based on little more than the happy accident that there are people who like football and buy cars living within 30 miles of his house.

That’s the newspaper business, or at least it was until recently. The average US paper runs more soft than hard news, uses more third-party content than anything created by their own staff, and reaches more people who care about local teams than local zoning.

Much public worry about newspapers concerns a relative handful of excellent dailies with national or international ambitions. Most papers, however, aren’t like that. The New York Times and the Enid, OklahomaNews and Eagle occupy different parts of the news ecosystem, and they face different stresses and fates, but more papers—many more—exist at the News and Eagle end of the spectrum.*

Buy a newspaper. Cut it up. Throw away the ads. Sort the remaining stories into piles. Now, describe the editorial logic holding those piles together.

If you’ve picked a general interest paper, this will be hard. I recently learned, from a single day’s paper, that a bombing in Kirkuk killed 27, that Penelope Cruz has only good memories of filming Pirates of the Caribbean while pregnant, that many U.S. business hotels are switching to ‘shower-only’ bathrooms, and that 30-year fixed mortgages fell from 4.63% to 4.61% the week before.

Writing about the Dallas Cowboys in order to take money from Ford and give it to the guy on the City Desk never made much sense, but at least it worked.

The point here is that not all that much of what “journalism” produces is actually civically important. There’s only a very small slice that is democratically necessary. That fact gets lost in part because many of the people writing about the problems of journalism are journalists, and so many of them write the content that isn’t essential. They tend to lump themselves all in together. But not all of their jobs are equally important. It’s a small slice that needs to be saved, for the sake of democracy.

As I put it in a post a while back:

When I talk about how we will finance news/journalism I’m interested in only a very small subset of all journalism which I’d refer to as that which provides core civic knowledge.  In other words, the information that we feel is vital to a functioning democracy.*  By this measure, most of what we see in the newspapers is not an issue.  Go through a newspaper sometime and look.  We’re not talking about how to fund the sports section, the travel section, the style section, that article on some writer’s quest for the perfect espresso.  That is beyond the scope of what we, as a society, need to ensure exists going forward.

[Side note: I happen to think the network/the blogosphere is pretty good at providing much of this “feature” content but even if it isn’t, if people want it, let them pay.  If they won’t pay, it’s no great civic loss for it not to exist.]

Girl Talk vs. Angry Birds

Cognitive surplus is a term coined by Clay Shirky to describe the giant block of free time, once spent passively consuming one-way media or entertainment, that is starting to be used for more productive projects and collaborations.  (It’s also theGirl Talk name of Shirky’s most recent book.)  It’s a pretty simple idea, and Shirky describes it via example in an interview at Wired:

Shirky: We’re still in the very early days. So far, it’s largely young people who are exploring the alternatives, but already they are having a huge impact. We can do a back-of-the-envelope calculation, for example, using Wikipedia, to see how far we still have to go. All the articles, edits, and arguments about articles and edits represent around 100 million hours of human labor. That’s a lot of time. But remember: Americans watch about 200 billion hours of TV every year.

For more on the idea, watch Shirky’s TED talk here.  But will we realize the potential of Shirky’s vision?  Joshua Benton wrote a post a couple weeks back at Nieman Lab titled I have found the cognitive surplus, and it hates pigs.  If that doesn’t make any sense to you then you probably haven’t gotten sucked in by the latest time waster: the mobile game Angry Birds.  Says Benton:

1.2 billion hours a year spent playing Angry Birds. Or, if Shirky’s estimate is in the right ballpark, about one Wikipedia’s worth of time every month.

This post is a plea to embrace the cognitive surplus, to not get sucked in by Angry Birds.  So here’s someone who embraced the cognitive surplus, and put his free time to good use: Gregg Gillis, aka Girl Talk.  Go read this (2007) interview with Gillis, about the tension between his day job and his burgeoning music career:

Gillis: I have jumped on a plane to do Friday and Saturday shows almost every weekend for the past 4 months now. It’s a little difficult to never talk about this in the work environment and to completely ignore the fact that I’m signing autographs and playing sold out shows when I’m not in my cubicle.

Months later he quit his job to be Girl Talk full time.  So would you rather be Girl Talk or on get to the next level of Angry Birds?  It’s the start of the three day weekend.  Here’s to embracing your cognitive surplus.

Note: here’s a more recent article about Girl Talk, what he does, and how he performs

Update: If you think this comparison is unfair because when you’re playing Angry Birds on your phone on the bus, say, there’s not much else you could be doing, I have one app for you: Instapaper.