Natural Selection in Newspapers and Universities

In 2009, Clay Shirky wrote a blog post likening the disruption of the newspaper industry to the revolution caused by the printing press. The internet updended how news could be produced, distributed, and monetized, wreaking havoc on traditional news institutions, just as the printing press had contributed to 400 years of political and religious chaos in Europe. Shirky wrote that in these times of revolution – when “the old stuff gets broken faster than the new stuff is put in place” – experiments in new institutional models are crucial. His mantra, “Nothing will work, but everything might,” highlights his perspective that many small experiments could produce a few “turning points” that could provide the new model for journalism.

Two years later, Dean Starkman in the Columbia Journalism Review warns Shirky and other journalism intellectuals that their anti-institutionalist predictions could actually be hastening the demise of the newspaper industry, bringing with it serious negative externalities. Starkman points out that serious investigative journalism requires clout, time, and money, which are what traditional institutions can offer. By encouraging experimentation that commoditizes reporting and values the 24-hour news cycle, Shirky and his “Future of News” compatriots are chipping away at the very institutions that are able to hold power accountable, without providing any guidance as to how they can evolve to preserve this critical function.

Shirky seems to take this criticism to heart in his 2012 report, Post-Industrial Journalism, written with Emily Bell and C.W. Anderson. In it, he acknowledges the importance of public interest journalism and begins to lay out a vision for the future that highlights the importance of both new models and traditional institutions, which can uniquely offer leverage, symbolic capital, continuity, and slack. The report offers recommendations to journalists, outlining a niche that builds on what they can do better than crowds of amateurs and machines. It also urges existing institutions to reexamine the underlying processes and technologies that perpetuate old models and make it difficult to change.

Shirky, Bell, and Anderson emphasize that their recommendations are consciously focused on institutions other than the New York Times, which has drawn a lot of attention but is “a uniquely poor proxy for the general state of American journalism.” The New York Times, they argue, has become a cultural institution of global significance, which provides it more flexibility in the choices it can make to adapt to a new reality. We have seen the resources that the New York Times can bring to bear: how many other newspapers can commission a 6-month internal strategic task force to map out a path towards a digital future?

I would agree: the New York Times is unique. More than any other news institution, it provides leverage, symbolic capital, continuity, and slack. If, as Shirky & Co. posit, traditional institutions are valuable to the extent they provide these four functions, then it is precisely because the NYT has these four qualities in greater concentration, that we should focus on it rather than on the long tail of traditional newspapers. It may be better to spend time on the NYT-like anomalies and let the new models replace the long tail.

We are seeing the same pattern as the internet disrupts higher education. Early on there were bold predictions about the demise of traditional universities, causing widespread anxiety. However, the models put forth to replace them (MOOCs) haven’t quite lived up to expectations. What we’re beginning to see in higher education mirrors newspapers: stratification of traditional institutions, as the top tier leverages its resources and flexibility to evolve, while new entrants make inroads into the space historically held by lower-tier institutions. Harvard has devoted resources to HarvardX, giving faculty the time, space, and resources to reimagine their roles. Just as the New York Times did with its Innovation report, MIT and Stanford have each recently stepped back to think about the futures of their institutions and how their underlying processes may need to change given the evolving external environment. However, it’s unlikely that many institutions beyond those in the top-tier will have the luxury to do this, making them more vulnerable to the disruption of new models. And so just as we identified the four qualities of traditional news institutions that were worth preserving (leverage, symbolic capital, continuity, and slack), we need to ask ourselves what traditional universities offer that new online models cannot provide. If those qualities exist primarily in top-tier institutions, we should focus on helping the Stanfords and MITs adapt, while encouraging experimentation of new models. But if those qualities are equally present in lower-tier institutions, we must do more to help them adapt.

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