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The End of Big News – a Google Hangout with Clay Shirky

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Those who know me know that I love to talk, and even to listen. As part of the online promotion for my book, I’ve lined up a list of guests for live Google Hangouts to pepper them with questions about things that are interesting to me. This morning, I hosted my first Google Hangout, with the exceptional Clay Shirky. It was great fun. It felt like my own little slice of Charlie Rose. I’ll get better at the interview, I promise. And I think I need a good sign-off, my own equivalent of “Stay Classy, San Diego”.

Clay’s work and writing substantially shaped and inspired my book, The End of Big – his work on the internet’s impact on society is some of the clearest thinking out there. In particular, Clay’s blog post on the future of newspapers “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” shaped my thinking on the Big News chapter. More recently, his post on the future of higher education prompted a valuable larger conversation that echoes some of the themes I cover in my chapter on Big Universities (Chapter 7, titled Big Minds).

This morning, I was asking Clay about a report he co-authored with Emily Bell and CW Anderson titled “Post Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present”. The report is long but a compelling read — well-written and interesting. And it’s very “end of big” — here’s a short quote from the conclusion of the report:

Though the concept has been somewhat tainted by the cheesiness of “Brand You!” boosterism, we live in an age where the experiments of individual jour- nalists and small groups are ideal for identifying possible new sources of value— process is a response to group dynamics, so the smaller the group, the easier it is to balance process and innovation (though later, of course, those innovations will have to be rendered boringly repeatable).

As I discussed with Clay, three things stood out for me from the report. First, there was virtually no mention of the big internet platforms as emerging institutions of the news. Whether we like it or not (and whether they like it or not), companies like Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon are shaping the future of news quite dramatically. I think it is dangerous to leave them out of the equation when talking about journalism — it is worth at least having a conversation about what role they play, and whether or not they have obligations or responsibilities to the public sphere. This is a theme I cover in my book — we need to think about what responsibilities the Even Bigger digital platforms have to the public interest.

The report does a good job of being hopeful about journalism — reading it is an exciting tour of all the stuff happening in journalism that is awesome. But although the book-length essay identifies and holds up as a core value of journalism the “iron core” of investigative reporting, most of the exciting stuff happening is pretty far removed from this iron core. Holding power accountable is a crucial function of news organizations — and that function is receding with the decline of the Fourth Estate as an institution.

But the most useful part of the report for me was two-fold: one, naming the “post-industrial” age of journalism as a vast combination of jumbled bits, with nothing so coherent as a “newsroom” with “beats” — and second, the role of technology (specifically content management systems and technical project management) in shaping the culture and actual operation (and arguable failure) of news organizations online.

The “End of Big” in Journalism is continuing to play out — but significant questions remain about what is going to happen to the core values embedded in our “old” Big news gathering organizations as radical connectivity marches on.

A big thank you to Clay for his willingness to be my first guest! And here’s to hoping some of the readers / watchers end up pre-ordering The End of Big.

 

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