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What will 2011 bring for journalism? Clay Shirky predicts widespread disruptions for syndication

Editor’s Note: To mark the end of the year, we at the Lab decided to ask some of the smartest people we know what they thought 2011 would bring for journalism. We’re very pleased that so many of them agreed to share their predictions with us.

Over the next few days, you’ll hear from Steve Brill, Vivian Schiller, Michael Schudson, Markos Moulitsas, Kevin Kelly, Geneva Overholser, Adrian Holovaty, Jakob Nielsen, Evan Smith, Megan McCarthy, David Fanning, Matt Thompson, Bob Garfield, Matt Haughey, and more.

We also want to hear your predictions: take our Lab reader poll and tell us what you think we’ll be talking about in 2011. We’ll share those results later this week.

To start off our package of predictions, here’s Clay Shirky. Happy holidays.

The old news business model has had a series of shocks in the 15 or so years we’ve had a broadly adopted public web. The first was the loss of geographic limits to competition (every outlet could reach any reader, listener or viewer). Next was the loss of progressive layers of advertising revenue (the rise of Monster and craigslist et alia, as well as the “analog dollars to digital dimes” problem). Then there is the inability to charge readers easily without eviscerating the advertising rate-base (the failure of micropayments and paywalls as general-purpose solutions).

Next up for widespread disruption, I think, is syndication, a key part of the economic structure of the news business since the founding of Havas in the early 19th century. As with so many parts of a news system based on industrial economics, that model is now under pressure.

As Jonathan Stray pointed out in “The Google/China Hacking Case” and Nick Carr pointed out in “Google in the Middle,” the numerator of organizations producing original news is tiny — absolutely tiny — compared to the denominator of those re-publishing that news. Stray notes that only 7 of the 121 outlets running the China story were based mainly on original reporting, while the vast majority was just wire service copy. Carr similarly pointed out that Google news showed 11,264 separate outlets for the Somali pirate story in 2009, almost all of them re-running the same couple of stories. (I was similarly surprised, last year, to discover that syndicated content outweighed locally created content in my old hometown paper by a 2:1 margin.)

The idea that syndication should be different in a digital era has been around for a while now. Jeff Jarvis’s formulation — “Do what you do best and link to the rest” — dates from 2007, and the AP started talking about about holding back some stories from subscribers in order to drive their PageRank up last year. What could make 2011 the year of general restructuring is Google’s attempt to give credit where credit is due, in the words of their blog post, by offering tags that identify original and preferred sources for syndicated stories.

This kind of linking, traffic driving, and credit are natively web-like ideas, but they are also inimical to the older logic of syndication. Put simply, syndication makes little sense in a world with URLs. When news outlets were segmented by geography, having live human beings sitting around in ten thousand separate markets deciding which stories to pull off the wire was a service. Now it’s just a cost.

Giving credit where credit is due will reward original work, whether scoops, hot news, or unique analysis or perspective. This will be great for readers. It may not, however, be so great for newspapers, or at least not for their revenues, because most of what shows up in a newspaper isn’t original or unique. It’s the first four grafs of something ripped off the wire and lightly re-written, a process repeated countless times a day with no new value being added to the story.

Taken to its logical conclusion, giving credit where credit is due will mean things like 11,260 or so outlets getting out of the business or re-running the same three versions of the Somali pirate story. If Reuters has the best version, why shouldn’t people just read it from Reuters?

Like other forces brought to bear by the web, there’s no getting around this one — rewards for originality are what we want, not just as consumers but as citizens — but creating an environment that generates those rewards will also mean dismantling the syndication model we’ve had since Havas first set up shop.

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  • Gregg Freishtat

    Syndication does not have to be dismantled. It needs to be completely re-invented for a world in which content can route dynamically and publishers can re-build an economic model that balances original content with content curated from others. I am biased as this is what we are working on….

  • amy dickinson

    I can only hope there will always be a market through syndication for what I and other columnists do – provide a unique voice but with professional editing and responsible reporting…plus — added bonus — the brilliance of comic strips.

  • Frank

    In regards to Google News’ latest efforts to determine original content: Why would wire services/curators place tags on their sites that would guarantee the loss of traffic and ad revenue? Is Google currently doing anything to reward or punish publishers who don’t give ‘credit where credit is due’?

  • Jonathan Stray

    A very interesting take. But I also see a counter-trend that makes syndication valuable. Links offer a terrible reading experience, if users have to go to someone else’s site — with a different user interface each time — to get the full content.

    This is why Flipboard has launched its “pages” product, and this is the hole that companies like DayLife and Publish2 are trying to fille.

    I believe there is money to be made in licensing content for an integrated experience. Or, as Ken Doctor calls it, “content arbitrage.”

  • Jonathan Stray

    Clay, I do agree with you on these points:

    1) Existing models of syndication are falling apart, for all the reasons you describe.

    2) Journalism is phenomenally inefficient, as an industry. A redesigned content syndication economy could make journalism both more efficient and smoother for the user, if it can make the provision of an integrated content experience via licensing
    cheaper than rewriting someone else’s copy.

    – Jonathan

  • stevefroth

    I’m confused by this new Google feature – what is to stop aggregators and bloggers who repurpose original content from slapping the ‘original’ metatag on all their pages? The honor system?

  • Myr Sylvia nelson

    I feel the new York should change the size of there paper.
    It’t to cumbersome especially in crowed places like a subway.
    I never see women reading the.times on a train or’s
    Just to wide.
    A prediction that the Internet will start charging certain
    Sites probably social networking first.. Since Twitter and
    Facebook etc. Have been so popular, journalism is going
    To be turned on it’s ear
    The process of evolving is sometimes painful. But without
    It there would be no growth

    Us all though Qwe n- might not

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  • Bill Garber

    Who needs a ‘wire editor’ when one can hook up the wire to a website and let the visitors serve themselves?

    Well, people like to be served.

    Heck, we built a whole economy on service. The information economy now in such deep recession might like to take a step back and see how the service economy might approach information.

    So, are the eggs at McDonald’s any different than at IHOP or the local diner?

    The other day I was driving up 101 past lettuce fields in California when I saw a truck full of packed-in-the-field lettuce boxes coming onto the road. I saw boxes of seven different brands leaving the same field on the same truck.

    Apparently there is more to a salad than lettuce.

    When syndicated content is more conveniently and therefore more desirably available in a Chicago-focused experience, say, things will just work out. And you are right, probably not this year.

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  • ZuDfunck

    I am guilty of this crime!
    I will try to do better in the new year
    I promise
    I get lazy though
    I figure if folks need the original source
    they can just Google it.

  • Stephen Howard-Sarin

    I hope Clay turns out to be right, and the Google News engineers are successful, but I don’t think either will be. We’re experiencing an explosion of content distribution channels, e.g. Facebook and mobile apps, that create massive new opportunities for successful syndication.

    People are likely to consume whatever version of an article they get forwarded from friends or that shows up in their favorite news app. The fact that the open Web “knows” the original source will matter less and less.

  • Stuart Joubert

    As a former reporter turned educator, and an occasional blogger of what might otherwise never see the light of day, it is the proliferation of blogging that concerns me.
    Much that is ‘blogged’ is probably of little interest to anyone other than the writer. Many professional writers and journalists, however, are blogging in an effort to reach a wider audience and lift their professional profile.
    No harm in this but for the fact they they are effectively undermining the writing profession by doing this without remuneration.
    Sharing is fine, and you can count on having some of your best ideas taken up by others in this medium, but what happened to being paid for your work?

  • @Drivelry

    Hmmm … Google to “give credit where credit is due” by enabling tagging of original versus syndicated content?

    Not how I read it – these are tags that you can use (voluntarily) as a news provider. I can just see all the news providers out there wanting to give credit to other news providers as the original source of story they’ve rewritten …. (maybe not). (-:

  • Ian Kennedy

    Maybe the end result of this Google News initiative (give credit where credit is due) will be to somehow collapse together the bubbles that arise out of similar stories.

    Once I’ve read one story in Google Reader, wouldn’t it be great if all the related stories on other feeds I subscribe to also magically faded from my queue. You could even sort your feed to either favor the original source or your favorite publication.

    Apply the same Tetris-like reduce logic using a browser cookie on Google News, Techmeme and you’ve got a real time-saver.

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  • Frederick Harris

    Re: Death of Syndication
    Clay Shirky might be on to something in connection with old media syndication. However, SYNDICASTING (Yes, I coined the term) is entirely different in that uses stand-alone brand channels that support individual news outlets that can mix, match and otherwise CUSTOMIZE their news outputs in stand-alone brand channels, the latter which enables them to charge for ads aimed at customized demographics. Customization plus BRAND CHANNEL syndication equals a Syndicast. Shirky, who is nearly always prescient about these things (and I’m a fan)is somewhat behind the innovation curve on this one.
    Frederick Harris
    Founder NewsNav
    Founder NewsNav

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  • Mara A

    I’m an Italian journalist. I think syndication will survive at least until readers will need translations for the syndicated pieces.

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  • Pär Landor

    I don’t believe in citizen journalism in the sense that almost everyone could become a good journalist. I believe in the profession. But still, this is nothing that would not prove Clay Shirky right. The drive for The Scoop is probably going to mean that we will have a lot more professional journalists out there publishing scoops or “scoops”.
    Then again – the “scoops” will either mess up, or clean up, the market. Poor journalistic revelations will shoot down “professionals” as unreliable. But, on the other hand, good revelations by small new, or single publishing journalists, will expose big media corporations as dinosaurs or mummies.
    Read the blog at

  • Mel Reiff Hill

    this is what is trying to do, as well- filling a gap in traditional syndication. Embedding a whole article “reads” to google like a link, but has the benefit of a much better user experience. Interesting stuff.