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Dec. 13, 2010, 10 a.m.

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.

POSTED     Dec. 13, 2010, 10 a.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Predictions for Journalism 2011
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