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April 22, 2010, 7 a.m.

Clay Shirky: On the necessity of waste, the power of institutions, and the safety of the infinite time horizon

Internet thinker Clay Shirky and veteran investigative journalist Walter Robinson came to Harvard this week to talk about how the Internet has changed the art of digging up dirt on powerful institutions. Robinson led The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer-winning investigations into priest abuse in the Catholic Church; Shirky has written extensively on how the fact-finding and fact-sharing mechanisms of journalism are changed by technology.

Our Laura McGann was there and filed this report highlighting Shirky’s major points, but we also wanted to post the entire conversation to let you hear for yourself what they were talking about. There’s some discussion specific to the state of the Catholic Church, but for the most part it’s a conversation about how investigative work is made both more effective and (arguably) less common by the Internet — with an emphasis on how the declining role of giant, storied newspapers is impacting what some powerful folks can get away with.

Here’s Shorenstein’s brief summary of the talk, from which we got this audio. You can listen to the conversation in the player below, or download the MP3 here.


Here’s a transcript:

Tom Patterson: I’m Tom Patterson, I’m filling in for Alex Jones today, and I’m just delighted that we have both Clay Shirky and Walter Robinson here. I’m going to keep the introductions short, so that we have as much time for questions — I know that this is an issue we all want to talk about.

Walter Robinson and his Spotlight Team won the Pulitzer Prize in the public service area in 2003 for their series of stories on sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, on the part of the clergy. And that was near the end of a thirty-year career with the goal, and Robby is now a distinguished professor of journalism at Northeastern.

And then Clay Shirky, I mentioned this morning when we were in Alex Jones’s class this morning, that Clay’s been writing about the Internet for about fifteen years, which is about as long as anyone’s been writing about the Internet, so talk about getting in early on the ground on this important new medium. Also in his career, a time in business and in the theater. He is a consultant, also has a faculty position at NYU. And we’re trying to get him up here, and I think we will, to do a course this fall. So I guess we’ll start with you, Robby.

Walter Robinson: Thank you. I think this morning, you — when you introduced Clay you said he was one of the first to recognize the potential for the Internet. And you kindly didn’t say I was among the last. Old media, new media. Uh, as we discussed this morning, I’m a bit of a relic. And I’ve had the great good fortune to have done the kind of reporting I do in what I now look back on fondly as perhaps what was the golden age of American newspaper investigative journalism. The opportunities to do that in the newspaper world have obviously evaporated. Not evaporated, but they’ve diminished quite a bit. And I think that’s sad and I hope there’s a future for it and something I hope we can talk about today.

I want to talk a little bit about what we did in 2001, 2002, and 2003 on the Catholic Church, and I’ll leave to Clay the discussion of, pretty much the discussion of the impact the Internet has had on this story. One of the things that surprises me, frankly, is that it’s taken so long for what happened so publicly to the American Catholic Church to begin to happen to the Catholic Church in Europe, with all the implications it has for the current pope and his administration and the Munich Archdiocese, et cetera.

But I have to say, in 2001, when we had a new editor walk into the door at the Globe from The Miami Herald, Marty Baron, and in Florida, virtually everything was public, back at that time. There was a court fight over whether the autopsy photos of Dale Earnhardt would be public. Fortunately, at the end, they were not. But Marty Baron walked into the Globe, and had read the day before his arrival a column by Eileen McNamara in which she took note of a civil lawsuit against a Boston priest, John Geoghan, involving eighty-some victims, and that the judge in the case had put a confidentiality order on all the documents. They were not public.

And Marty’s first inclination — this is the best example I can think of in my years of journalism of bringing a fresh eye to an old subject — was, “Well, why should these documents not be public?” And by that afternoon of his first day, he had called on our law firm, Bingham — Bingham, I used to call them “Bingham, Bang ’em, and Bill ’em” — Bingham McCutchen, now, and asked them to look into going to court and filing a motion to get these documents freed up. And he had pulled me into his office — I was the assistant managing editor for investigations and head of the Spotlight Team, which was a four-person team of which I was essentially the player-coach — and asked us to begin to look into Father Geoghan.

And I think I walked out trembling, thinking, you know, The Boston Globe taking on the Catholic Church? I mean, this, given the array of people that we had had in our sights all the years, this was pretty extraordinary. And at that time, I did not know, because none of us knew what happened elsewhere in the world, really, in many ways. I did not know that there been an extraordinary case in Louisiana in 1985 with a priest who abused well over 100 children. I didn’t know that there had been a case in the late ’80s in Dallas. I didn’t know about a case in New Mexico. What I only knew about, really — and our librarian was able to find this after some work — what I did know about was a case in 1992 in another diocese in Massachusetts involving a priest named James Porter, who was a pedophile who had abused over 100 children. We started from scratch and, with a new editor asking us to do it, out of fright. And we worked — we went out, four of us, knowing nothing about the subject, and decided to basically comb the landscape and try to find anybody who knew anything about sexual abuse of children who might know something about this priest.

And after a couple weeks, we went back to the editor — I went back to the editor, and I said to him, “We haven’t found much out of Geoghan, but we have been told that he is the tip of the iceberg, and that there are many other priests who have done the same thing, and it’s just never come out.” And I was thinking that the time maybe 10, 15 priests — that would be a really big story. And the Friday before 9/11, I met with two people who gave me the names of 30 priests for whom the archdiocese had made secret settlements in prior decades. And we had to take a break like everybody else in our business for five weeks to do reporting on 9/11, but when we got back to it, we developed a database of every priest who had been placed on sick leave at a fairly young age by the Boston Archdiocese and came up with a list of over 100 priests who had been put in that category in the prior decade.

Our lawyer had filed a lawsuit seeking all the documents in the Geoghan case, and in November of 2001, a Superior Court judge who some think not incidently had spent 16 years in Catholic schools, ruled in our favor. And the Archdiocese of Boston, which had kept record of abusive priests going back to the 1920s, thinking they could never possibly be in the public eye, all of a sudden was ordered to produce all the records in the case of this one priest, Father Geoghan, who had been shuttled through six different parishes under three cardinals over his lifetime, and with extraordinary amount of evidence that at each parish they knew what he had done to so many children. Estimates are that he probably abused over 400 children, including seven children in one extended family, and that included a four-year-old boy.

We broke that story about Geoghan in January of 2002 and, in order to engage our readers, we had a tip line that we posted: Give us a call if you have information about this. We got flooded with phone calls. And from around the world. Emails, including almost 50 people from Australia who wanted to tell us their story. And the story spread like wildfire. The Cardinal immediately got up, apologized, and said he had only moved this guy Geoghan to another parish on the advice of two doctors. Our tip line lit up when he said that, and we got calls and we were able to report that one of the doctors was his general practitioner and the other one was his psychiatrist who did not practice in this area and who himself had been accused of sexually abusing two of his patients. And as soon as that story came out, the cardinal was in quite serious trouble.

We then reported fairly quickly that the Church had made settlements involving more than 70 priests in the prior decade which they had kept secret. And the Church did not complain. We later found out that we had seriously underreported the number. It was close to 200 priests. The story as you know took off. At first, it was the American Catholic Church saying “What’s wrong in Boston” and then all of a sudden it became a story around the country and then it was the Vatican saying “What’s wrong in the liberal United States that this would go on.” And now, today we know that it is a serious worldwide problem. And far better then I ever could, Clay I think talk to what an enormous difference the new world we live in has made for this kind of story and other too.

Clay Shirky: I actually wrote about this case and the Globe’s coverage of it and the reactions in Here Comes Everybody, the book I did on social media that came out in 2008. And I was saying to Walter and Tom after class this morning, it’s interesting that at the time I wrote, we were in a kind of a lull, because it was after the scandal of the American church was cleared but before it had truly become worldwide. And it’s interesting to be having this conversation now when it is clear that it is a global issue.

I want to talk about some features of media landscape and what it means for this moment in journalism, and I’ll just pick out four things that happened in the aftermath of the 2002 Spotlight story, that are the kinds of things that, even though The Globe itself has covered abusive priests earlier — Shanley, Porter — Shanley who was in ’92 and seemingly as monstrous as Geoghan — that it took until 2002 for the story to become a synchronizing story, not just an event, but something that actually kicked off this rolling wave of concern that’s now gone global. The first observation is that in April of 2002, The New York Times in its investor relations documents said this Spotlight story was most largest, most global thing that it’s ever came out of, the Boston Globe website, and the circulation for that one story was larger than the nominal circulation of The Boston Globe, because the stories in the ’90s had come out, the audience of the story was Bostonians, whether Catholic or no.

But in 2002, the audience was Catholics whether Bostonian or no. And this ability of super-distribution, of someone taking the story, becoming outraged, and immediately being able to send it at low cost to multiple people who could themselves send it at low cost to multiple people, meant that within days of the story coming out, you know, the Australians were looking in on this. It went around the English language world first and then later in other languages. So that ability for super-distribution was the first thing that made the 2002 stories.

Second thing, there was a group that set up in a church basement at the end of that January, the January the story came out, called Voice of the Faithful. And it was a group of people whose motto was “Keep the faith, change the Church.” And it was a protest group of loyal lay Catholics who wanted to transform the church’s culture away from this habit of moving pedophile priests from parish to parish without telling anyone. They started with 30 people in a church basement in January. By that summer they had 25,000 members in 21 countries. It is an astonishing torrid rate of growth. And again it comes now not just in terms of distributed media, but also when you distribute a piece of media, you can also now say “Join us.”

So the Internet doesn’t just provide a tool for distribution of information. It also becomes a site of cooperation, where these organizations can found themselves and very quickly grow. It also happened to existing organizations, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests had built up — it was a U.S.-based group — had built up to nine different chapter organizations in the U.S. over the course of about a dozen years, and in 2002 they grew from nine to 25. So they almost tripled in size in a single year, and became in that year an international organization. David Clohessy, who founded and runs SNAP, has now said he believes that soon there will be more SNAP chapters outside the United States than inside. So it is following the — it is moving to every place Catholicism is a major force.

That ability for people to coordinate themselves when they hear the news, not just to be outraged in isolation but to be outraged together, which is the kind of thing that produces action, is new. The reaction of the authorities, relatively predictable, right — we don’t know how long the Catholic Church has been doing this. We know that it is as long as anyone has been alive, which is to say this has been a permanent feature of the modern landscape. And their strategy has always been settle with the victims, cash payout, gag order of some sort or agreed upon silence, move the priests sometimes to nominal rehabilitation, sometimes just straight to another parish, tell no one.

And Voice of the Faithful, in that first year, the year 2002, consistently asked to meet with Law, who was then the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Boston. And Law never met with the them, but he sent Bishop Edyvean to meet with them. Edyvean was essentially the public, the media face of the church at the time. And shortly after the meeting, Edyvean said good Catholics may not be members of any organization that enables conversation across parish lines. You can talk to other Catholics, but only in the town you live in, not the next town over, because for the first time there was a threat that the lay population would actually have a form of organization different from the church hierarchy. And a form of organization that would prevent them from encapsulating a particular story in a particular parish. And their response to this was essentially to include lay Catholics in the hierarchical notion of the church for the first time. Vatican II, which had come out in the ’60s had said, you know, the voice of people is the voice of God, provided essentially some feel-good nostrums for involvement of the laity in the church. But there wasn’t any really easy way to do that, and so it didn’t turn into much more than a feel-good model.

I think it is no accident that the current occupants of the Holy See and senior cardinals are effectively conservatives opposed ideologically to Vatican II at exactly the moment when Vatican II has acquired an actual implementation layer. Which is to say there is now a way for lay Catholics to organize themselves to participate in church life, which there wasn’t at the time that Vatican II was proposed. So these tools not only allow people to network and coordinate, they allow them to do it in a way that cuts across national boundaries, cuts across language boundaries, cuts across church hierarchy.

And finally, and I think most tellingly for the long rolling fact of this story, the Catholic Church’s model has always been silence, move, wait. And what they’ve always been able to say is, “We are as shocked as you are that a priest would do this. This is the only time this has happened. There is no history, there is no pattern.” And even a well funded media organization had to have a librarian on the job for several weeks just to uncover a handful of cases. What we see now, first with specific sites like, and more laterally with just the rise of the search engine as the normal case for uncovering information, is that the church’s ability to say there is no history and there is no pattern has simply been shattered. That anyone who hears about priestly abuse anywhere in the world and types any related word into any search engine will find a list as long as your arm. This is what happened in Louisiana in 1985, here’s what was going on in Falls River, here’s the case in Costa Rica, and here’s Mexico City, and so forth. It’s all there, all the time. Anything that has ever happened is as available to an interested consumer as it is today.

So those kinds of changes took the Spotlight story and put it into a social context where not just action but persistance was possible. And this has really been the church’s ace in the hole up until recently, which is the church has an infinite time horizon. They’ve simply been able to wait out anybody who wanted to bring them to heel for this kind of thing. And the ability of an organization like the Globe, which also has an infinite time horizon, to put information out in a way that spreads worldwide and remains persistent has been phenomenal and transformative. I think this is along with Teapot Dome and Watergate, I would put this in the list of one of those world-changing investigative stories. The irony is that it is coming at a time when the very medium that enables this kind of subsequent super-distribution and coordination of social value is also destroying the economic model that the Globe used to support the work in the first place. Which is to say, the source of funding for newspapers is being destroyed by the very medium that makes best use of — the advertising side of the house which supported the investigative side of the house, the Internet is having inverse effects on those two halves of the organization. It is wrecking the advertising side of the house even as it makes good investigative journalism much more resonant much more quickly to many more people on a global scale.

And that, it seems to me, is the great open question around investigative journalism now, which is — the product is more valuable in a public way, but it is less salable in a “it’s the thing that advertising is wrapped around” or “it’s the thing that fills the newshole” sort of in a way. There are lots and lots and lots of good things that are happening in the Internet. Crowdsourcing, and leak databases like Wikileaks, and individual bloggers looking in on their neighborhoods, and all the rest of it.

But, three of the things that strike my ear from Walter’s story that are culturally at risk right now — from just saying “Oh, well, the Internet’s just gonna provide new styles of journalism as if by magic” — are waste, are the ability to put someone on a story for weeks and weeks and months of time and then be able to say, “That didn’t really pan out. We looked. There was nothing there.” The ability to waste resources is really challenging to produce with Internet journalism in its current model.

Institutional manipulation, right? There had to be a lawsuit against the Catholic Church. It wasn’t just a matter of assembling public sources, which is expensive and complicated.

And maybe most worrying to me is the infinite time horizon. Because when you have institutions with infinite time horizons, whether the government or a church or have you, almost the only thing that can bring them to heel is other institutions that also have infinite time horizons. So as we’re moving from a model of commercial advertising funding to a model of public support, whether it’s volunteering and donations or subsidies and endowments, I think the short-term question everybody’s focused on is “Where do the dollars come from?” I think those are the answers. They come from volunteering and donations and subsidies and endowments. The long-term question is: What kind of culture do we need around investigative journalism to turn that source of capital into something that produces organizations that can afford to waste things, that can deal with the institutional questions of suing in court to get access to documents, and have the infinite time horizons necessary to have a watchdog function that brings other institutions with infinite time horizons together.

Patterson: All right. Let me ask one question here. I mentioned this morning in class about the Goldsmith Award which is the Shorenstein Center’s investigative award program and — now in its 19th year. We’ve had over 100 finalists for that award, nearly all of which have been newspapers. And many of them have been small newspapers. I mean, certainly The New York Times and the Post and the Globe and the like have been overrepresented, if you’re looking at it numerically. But when you started this story, did you think of it as primarily a local story?

Robinson: Yes. Absolutely. It just so happens that the only place where the Boston Globe and the Catholic Church were in sync is that our readership area essentially overlies the boundaries of the archdiocese of Boston, which is eastern Massachusetts. And we thought it was a local story. Fairly quickly, we realized it was gonna be a big global story. At some point in our reporting process, it began to dawn on us that there wasn’t just, as I said, something in the water in Boston that caused priests to do this to children. I mean, obviously, it must’ve been as large anywhere else. I mean, what frankly, even though a lot of stuff is tumbling out in Europe now. Most dioceses in the United States have escaped the kind of scrutiny that occurred here. Not so much because The Globe was so great. I mean, we certainly put huge resources in it — we did 800 stories in one year. But because the courts sided with us in forcing the church to reveal its records. And that has not happened in most places in the United States, and there has not been sufficient accountability even in this country.

Patterson: Okay. We do privilege students here but, so if there’s — the floor is open for questions.

Q: Well, I had that same impressions about — I’m married to someone from Italy, and I remember that my Italian relatives were saying oh these, you know, American priests are just so corrupt. But what struck me about the stories about Geoghan and Porter and Shanley back then was just that a lot of the information was really old. And the abuse happened a long time ago. And I remember thinking, it’s really good this is getting out in the open, it’s really good that people are doing something about this, but it’s almost like someone had been saving it up and waiting to unleash it.

And again in Europe, now, I’m not up on all the revelations — I did read about some of them in the begining — but it seemed like some of them were quite old. And I just wonder how do you explain this sitting on it? It’s always as if somebody said to the Catholic Church, either do what I want or I’m gonna unleash this problem.

Shirky: I’ll tell the story of — I think there’s two answers to that question. One, the abuses were worse long ago, which is to say the Catholic Church even before the Spotlight story realized that they had a bigger problem on their hands. More systemic than they knew. And they began to take steps to move these priests rather than to. In more recent years, you know, starting in the ’80s. They hadn’t removed enough of them, and the worst cases they still left, but the overall abuse seems to have fallen. But the other is that I don’t think there was anyone on the inside threatening the church. I think it’s a question of synchronization. Which is to say, if it happened in Louisiana but it’s never happened any other place because there is no history of it, then there’s no pattern, and if it happens in San Diego and there is no history and there is no pattern, and it happens in Boston and there is no history and there is no pattern, it could break out as many times as it needed to break out and always be covered as a local story, and no one would ever know any different.

I think what changed is that The Globe not only provided the template for “this is how you look for it, this is what reporting on the subject looks like,” but that the spread of that story made people in Australia realize, “oh yeah, we ought to be able to get this here.” Which is to say I think this is a pull story, and a push story. And I think this is a story of synchronization of the laity of the Catholic Church themselves, not a small number of actors trying to unleash this information so much as a large number of actors suddenly realizing, we actually are all thinking the same thing.

It’s like that moment where Eastern Europe collapsed and you read these stories of people realizing the jig is up, right? Each of us knows that life in the GDR is lousy. But if all of us act on that at the same time, then what was previously universally held private knowledge becomes public knowledge.

Q: People find the courage to say something or to make a statement.

Shirky: Right, right. Because you can deny them the ability to say, this is an isolated incident.

Robinson: What had happened, just to expand on that just a wee bit, is that tens of thousands of children had been sexually abused by priests and in, as far as we could tell, in the vast majority of those cases when the abuse occurred, they did not tell anyone. They didn’t tell their siblings, they didn’t tell their parents. We had people calling us in 2002 who had been abused 25 years earlier, who called us and hadn’t yet told their spouses. And they wanted to tell us their stories. And it was just, kids were ashamed, they didn’t understand. They were 12, 13 years old. So nobody said anything. And when parents did find out and they went to the church, the pastor said, “don’t worry we’ll take care of it, Father needs a little time off” or something. So the whole thing was hushed up. And then starting in the ’90s they started to get people coming forward, and they kept those settlements private. And then when it blew up all the sudden everybody wanted to talk about it.

People who had suppressed this for years thought they were the only one that this ever happened to them, and all of the sudden they realize “I’m one of them.”

Q: So it was a therapeutic process for many people. But there was a down side of it which I almost wish with the story something couuld be done about it, and I guess it will be corrected because there are always backlashes. But so many people had the courage to speak out because of these stories, but sometimes it became a juggernaut against the Catholic Church, and there are many wonderful priests who have done wonderful things and — even some priests who back in the Geoghan years who were good, whose names were just in there because they were involved one way or another and suddenly they were tarnished because their names, you know, had shown up in the Globe and it’s almost like it flips from one day to the next and everybody has judged you ahead of time. And the people who have given their lives to service, it’s a shame that you can’t really pick and choose the effects of those things.

Q: Yes, hi, I’m Ingrid Lehmann, I was a Shorenstein Fellow in 2004. I just happened to be visiting …

Patterson: We are also privilege former Shorenstein Fellows.

Q: The ash clouds from the volcano is the reason that I’m still here. And I’ve been working actually since 2004 on international media scandals, and I’ve also been teaching a course on that comparative media scandal — very interesting stuff. I’ve also been to live in Salzburg, Austria, a place that for hundreds of years has more or less been run by the church. There a lot of questions I have, but the two questions I like to ask are, one, picking up on what Tom said about how a local story eventually becomes a global story, then gains a new momentum that will then threaten this secrecy policy of the institution concerned, in this case the Catholic Church, but other institutions have reacted similarly or tried to. What has also often happened is there are whistleblowers from within the organization — I don’t mean the victims, I mean the organization itself — that then come out and says “hey, this is our policy,” and then you really go to the leadership of the organization. Has that happened? I’ve not seen that reported.

My other question is, of course, the interesting one in the long run: Is this something that you personally, just based on your research, is not only big enough but this is going to continue long enough to get real pressure on the Vatican and the pope himself to…whatever.

Robinson: To your last question, I have no hope that the Vatican itself will ever change in the sense that I think your question suggests. This is not an institution that even now, based upon how its handled the most recent stuff, feels that owes any accountability to the church. That’s my own personal — and I don’t see that changing now. The consequence for the church may be that it diminishes yet again as an institution in other countries.

Shirky: And to this earlier juggernaut observation as well, I think it’s almost impossible to tell this story in which the Catholic Church is beleaguered. They’ve had enormous support from the authorities in covering up these cases and hiding this cases. They came this close to being charged under RICO — racketeering and corrupt organizations — in Boston because the persistent pattern of abuse and coverup with this children. And weren’t only because the Boston D.A. could not imagine charging the Catholic Church as a corrupt otganization, even though they fit the entire pattern the law was on. The amount of official support, particularly in European and Latin American countries, the amount of legal support for keeping the church from being held to account is quite extraordinary. And they face what Hirschman would call an exit, voice, and loyalty choice right now. They can try to have faithful members of laity who have want the church to be brought, to be made more accountable. They can try to modify it themselves to keep those members in the fold. Or they can shrink to members who are relative loyalists without regard to the crimes committed by priests, and expel the people who would like to see the church updated.

The last time they came to a historical juncture of this magnitude, the Protestant Reformation, they made that latter choice. And I don’t see any reason to think they wouldn’t make it again, which is to say I imagine they will happily shrink their size wherever necessary to expel reformers and be an organization more organized around a smaller number of loyalists rather than creating any degree of accountability to rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s in their participation in the legal systems of the countries where they operate.

Q: And financially, aren’t they going to — you know, people in Austria are leaving now in droves and they’re not paying their taxes any more.

Shirky: That’s the exit, voice, and loyalty choice, which is they would rather be a smaller organization with more privilege for the priests rather than a larger organization with less privilege.

Robinson: The strength in the growth in the Catholic Church has been in parts of the world — Africa and Latin America — where this scandal has had so far virtually or very little impact.

Shirky: Latin America’s coming. And Africa, maybe not. Africa they’ve been later — they may have moved into Africa at a time when they were willing to reign in pedophile priests earlier. There’s also been accomodations around married priests in Africa that haven’t existed in the western world. The Latin American scandal is, I think that’s the next one to go, because the priests there have been presumptively as abusive as elsewhere because they have the same historical pattern. It’s just that press is even less willing than, say, the Italian or Spanish press to report it. But that won’t last forever.

Q: Walter, I was curious what kind of pressure was brought that you know of on the Globe to basically not do this story? And how would that differ 10 or 15 years earlier, when the church may have been a more dominant institution? And if one fast-forwards to the present day and sort of where the Internet is even more powerful, if you’re trying to suppress a story, is it possible to suppress a story like this or is what’s the effective strategy now if you’re trying to keep something from going out. I mean, I’m imagining here there was a fair amount of pressure brought on the Globe to not do what you were doing.

Robinson: I’ll leave the last question to my colleague here. But I would say to you I know of no pressure on the Globe to prevent us or deter us from doing the story. Now, I imagine that the publisher must have received some — before the story broke — must have. Because the cardinal found out about three weeks after we started asking questions that we were asking questions about priests other than Geoghan, and he sent an emissary to me. And I said, “If we have any questions to ask you later on, we’ll call you. See you later.”

Now, but the publisher’s job is to deflect that sort of outside pressure to the extent it existed. And if it was there, he did so, and he did so in the proper way so I wouldn’t even know about it. I mean, I don’t know, I suspect, but I was insulated from it and that’s the way it’s supposed to work. And I think that’s great.

Now, 10 or 15 years earlier, the Globe was after Father Porter in ’92, and we got a lot of pressure. Cardinal Law, as you remember, came out with his pronouncement calling down the power of God on the media and especially The Boston Globe. What isn’t generally known is the week after that Jack Driscoll, our Irish Catholic editor, fell and broke his leg. But that was back in a time, and I have to say this, where all of us who were acculturated — and I’m a product of Boston Catholic schools and a Jesuit high school — all of us who were acculturated to this institution and its iconic status in our community probably averted our eyes or looked the other way. Certainly police and prosecutors did for a long time, and some judges.

And there are stories, I’ll just relate one very quickly. In 1984, Father Eugene O’Sullivan in Arlington pled guilty to the forcible anal rape of a 12-year-old alter boy in Middlesex Superior Court, and he got six months in the house of correction. Or was it six months probation? Whatever it was it’s astonishingly — and Archbishop Law sent him to a diocese in New Jersey, and he was in five parishes in seven years, and four of the parishes, they never knew about his rape conviction. And the Globe wrote that story in 1993, and I looked back on it in 2002, and I didn’t remember it. But when I looked back on it, I said, “How could we not read that story?” — which by the way was on the front page in 1993 — “and not have a meeting and say, ‘Wait a minute. Isn’t there something worth looking into there?'” And we didn’t do it.

Shirky: So if you want to bury a story now, to take the second half of your question, there’s been a curious inversion of the news cycle. It used to be the front-page news was bad for you because that would indicate some synchronization of the public. But with the news cycle now down at 36 hours if you want to bury a story, get it all out at once right away. Everything. Everything on one day, and then the next day say, “That’s yesterday’s news.” The thing that kills people now is drip, drip, drip. Goldman is up against it right now, because they can’t release email documents. So they’re going to have to wait for the subpoena process and the discovery process, and Goldman is going to be on the front page day after day after day.

The result of that I don’t know, but it would have been better for Goldman to have said, “We’re going to do this to ourselves so that we can actually compress the news cycle rather than expand it.” And I think a number of organizations haven’t yet realized that if I can get complete front-page news coverage but reduce the possibility that in fact the story is going to be like this. Because the ability to create a long cycle of attention to a story, which used to come from the daily-ness of daily newspaper, there is now no media outlet alone that can decide whether or not a story is going to unfold over a long period of time. So the way you frontload that in your favor is you take advantage of the news cycle, particularly in the market-driven parts of the industry. We just get it all out at once, and then you say, “That was last week. Are you still talking about that? That priest thing? We told you everything we know.” It’s really when it becomes a story every day and there’s a new revelation. The ACORN people — the people who took ACORN down, they released a video. They didn’t release everything they had. They released a video and ACORN said, “What’s this? It’s awful! Of course we object to this. We will fire that person at once. Nothing like this would ever happen in another office!” Next day, another video. And it was on day four when they realized they have a potentially unlimited number of things they can say about ACORN, that the dam broke. So if they released everything about ACORN, ACORN could have said, “It’s terrible. Terrible. We’re taking steps” and be done.

So if you ever get into that kind of trouble, the post-Chappaquiddick advice but now even more forcefully. The sooner and in more detail you can announce the bad news the better.

Q: This may be two separate issues, but you were saying how the Internet ironically is ruining the financial model for newspapers. One of the finalists for the Goldsmith Awards this year was ProPublica, who worked in collaboration with [The New York Times]. Now can more of that collaboration somehow help?

Shirky: Sure. Sure.

Q: Do you see a lot more of that happening?

Shirky: Absolutely. I think that what Steiger is up to — it’s interesting. Steiger said we’re going to take what I know from the Journal and we’re going to move in the nonprofit world. So I’m going to get an infinite time horizon not by an infinite future stream of ad revenues but by having an endowment, the way this institution [Harvard] has an infinite time horizon. And about six, eight months in they realized, “Oh, we’re missing some stuff that’s possible. And they picked Amanda Michel out of Huffington Post, who’d done the OffTheBus, who’d done the crowdsourcing stuff. I think that that kind of hybridization is where we’re going. We’ve had a story we tell about newspapers, which is “Best Buy’s happy to fund the Baghdad bureau. It’s always been that way, it will always be that way. This is how news works.” And then all of a sudden Best Buy could opt out of funding the Baghdad bureau. And everything that looked like an edge case in American journalism, we’re a for-profit instituation except yeah, there’s NPR, and then there’s the BBC, whatever, they don’t really count. All of a sudden, that stuff counts a lot.

So ProPublica is doing amazing work — in my mind, much more amazing work as a wholesaler of news than as a retailer. Which is to say by providing databases — and interesting, they are in the same business as Sunlight Labs. They’re providing data on government. But ProPublica goes the extra step and says, you just have to think about this. And by providing both the database and some view for the reporters, they’re doing amazing work in helping people who have a native audience bridge the gap for a story. And that collaborative model, which kinda can’t exist unless there’s non-profit wholesalers, is one of I think the big bright lights of American journalism and, presumably, at some point global journalism today.

Robinson: On a more local level, there are a number of nonprofit enterprises around the country that are doing investigative journalism. My program in Northeastern, I teach investigative journalism to students who write stories for the Globe, and we’ve had 15 page-one hits in three years, and it supplements — I mean, it gives the Globe investigative stuff that it no longer has the resources to do. The Globe still has its Spotlight Team and other people doing investigative reporting. There’s a program at Boston University, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. There’s a reporter at the Chicago Tribune who does investigative reporting who has a class he teaches at Columbia College in Chicago, which recently did a story that reopened the investigation of someone who is on death row who had been convicted of murder. So, there are more and more of these efforts springing up around the country. So, that’s a good thing.

Q: Hi, my name is Monica Campbell. I’m a Nieman Fellow. I’ve been writing from Mexico where we’ve had several scandals. In fact, NPR today reported on Marcial Maciel, who is with the Legion of Christ, who passed away not too long ago. Huge story in Mexico which actually was really difficult to report on for local reporters, because of threats they received. So, I’m wondering just to take a little bit further your question on collaboration, on a global scale, considering the shared interest globally, do you think that there’s a time in the not so distant future when we’ll see programs like, places like ProPublica actually find counterparts in Mexico, Italy, those places and maybe be able to cross the language barrier, and crowdsource what’s happening in Mexico and also allow these untold stories, in a place like Mexico, to be told freely.

Shirky: I think, absolutely. My experience, or from observation, this is another place where pull is working better than push, which is to say I doubt, given the number of stories that the folks like Steiger, the folks at ProPublica feel like they’re not covering on any given day, that they’re also going to be pushing to global. But I do know that, you know that, the story of SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and Voices of the Faithful — they became international organizations without ever meaning to because people in other countries — I think Mexico City, in fact, may have been the first SNAP chapter outside the United States because they saw and said “we want that.”

So here’s the story that I think is gonna be the likeliest next source. There’s a pair of stories. One, the Wikileaks story, obviously. The ability to use the anonymizing redirect of Wikileaks to get material out and to get it back. It actually turns out to be easier to publish it globally and draw it back into a local context, than to try to do it entirely locally. And, the other is Ushahidi, which is this Kenyan site that was set up by Ory Okolloh, who is here, Ory Okolloh, the Kenyan blogger, to report on violence after the election in the December 2007 Kenyan presidential election. That software was not only invented in an African context, it’s been ported to and been translated into several languages, it’s been used all over sub-Saharan Africa, it’s been used in Mexico to track vote, you know, track free and fair elections. It’s been used in Haiti and Chile to track earthquake victims and supplies and so forth.

And the ability, I think — I’ve got a student, actually, who’s working on trying anonymous crowdsourcing based in part on Ushahidi, to surface reports of corrupt police. Where no one report becomes the thing you trust, but when you start to see patterns of otherwise dissociated individuals. It’s extremely difficult to do because Telmex is so closely aligned with the telecom companies that you may simply not be able to safely send a message in any electronic format about the police without getting a knock on your door. But there are people trying. So I do think that this is going to spread, but I think that it’s going to spread by people recognizing the pattern of ProPublica or recognizing the pattern of Ushahidi and reconstructing it for themselves. Which suggests to me that the platform-like tools, which allow people to build these kinds of reporting structures in their local context, will matter more than “Please ProPublica, won’t you open a Mexico City office?” Which strikes me as unlikely for all kinds of reasons. But rather “Please ProPublica, won’t you give us a list of things you’ve done to get where you’re going, so that if we see that template, we can implement it for ourselves.” That’s how Ushahidi’s spread. My guess is that these kinds of nonprofit reporting functions are going to spread in a similar way.

Q: A number of law schools operating clinical law programs around the country are coming under increasing attack by corporate interests to prevent the law schools from doing this. And they generally represent indigent poor people. Is the same thing happening with journalism students at schools of journalism, where you’re engaged in investigative reporting by students. Has there been a number of SLAPP suits? Or do you expect that?

Robinson: No, there’s been none of that. You know, one thing we try to do is we don’t use anonymous sources and we rely almost always on public documents for our reporting, trying to avoid anything like that. But no. There’s been no pressure of that sort. And I don’t think in an academic setting it would be tolerated.

Shirky: This business of public documents, too, is so important. And this is what Izzy Stone did, right? He famously said, “Not only do I not give off-the-record interviews. I don’t even really talk to those people. I don’t care what they say to me. They’re trying to spin me. I look at the documents.” The amount of documentation that’s being built up on all aspects of public life of various officials, coupled with extraordinary mathematical techniques for detecting things like fraud and abuse where the database does the work that 10 reporters could not have done, that is, I think, (a) going to be a huge source of investigative reporting. But (b) when Walter was telling the story this morning in class about this, and whether the Catholics were going to rain stones down on the Globe when they reported this, he said, “Because we had documentation, it wasn’t just ‘We’re reporting this. Someone said this.’ It’s “Here are the court records now unsealed.”

Attacking people who are working from documentation turns out to be harder than attacking people who are working from sources and particularly anonymous sources. And I think a lot of the legal clinic work is going to move to either include or some legal clinics will be based on this kind of analysis of public sources, as opposed to the sort of typical shoe-leather phone-call model, which will provide I think further insulation from institutional interference.

Laura McGann: I’m sort of juggling back and forth between your example of Breitbart trickling out the ACORN dirt over time and that being really successful. I’m just wondering if — setting aside questions of could a small outlet do what The Globe did, even if they could, was there something about the story coming from an institution with a long history within the community of trust? I mean if you’re taking on a church, you’re going to need a certain level of trust with the community, I would think. So I’m just trying to imagine, can you replicate that online, even setting aside the other questions of resources and wasting time and all that?

Shirky: It’s not a question of replicating online because The Globe did it online. The question isn’t “online or not.” You mean can you do it with a novel, small organization online? I doubt it.

Robinson: Small organizations don’t generally have the resources. In fact, a lot of papers the size of the Globe now do not have any investigative reporters on it.

McGann: I guess my question, though, is if you were a small unit and you spent time and you uncovered a story, with the way things spread online it seems to me that you still need that pickup from larger organizations, larger news offices.

Shirky: You don’t need pickup. It depends on the story. If you’ve seen some kittens on a treadmill, you are golden. You don’t need an organization. It will spread, right? I mean you look at the front page of YouTube now. “Charlie Bit My Finger” has a larger audience than any three American television shows you could name. So some kinds of things spread, other kinds of things do not spread.

What I think you’re picking up on is, if the initial source does not provide some degree of credibility, and in particular if the initial source instead looks like they have an ax to grind, it will circulate only among other people who have that same ax to grind, and it will produce no surprises for that reason. Alex, when we talked about this last fall, Alex said that the Geoghan story had been reported by a Boston weekly paper, one of the alternative weekly papers the previous fall. But that presumably circulated among the godless communists of Brattle Square and did not, did not spread, because it did not come from a place where you think, “oh my Goodness, criticism of the Catholic Church.” And it didn’t come from a place where the audience whose hands it fell into were outraged on their own behalfs and forwarded it.

Robinson: Well, in that case, the Geoghan story had been reported by the Globe and the Herald and the Phoenix.

Shirky: The Phoenix is the one we’re referring to, that’s right.

Robinson: What the Phoenix did was they interviewed victims who were part of this lawsuit who said “well, this must — surely the church must have known what’s been going on here.” But they didn’t get the documents. They raised the question. The question was how do you get the answer? And the answer was in the documents.

Patterson: Last quick question, because we are at the bewitching hour..

Q: I will say it very fast.

Shirky: It’s not the quickness of the question that is problematic. It’s the quickness of me and Walter’s answers.

Q: Okay, two-part very quick question. One is do you think that the church, if it was more savvy during the time with the use of the social media, could have constructed, despite the fact that they have seemed to take a wrong turn any time they made a public response — could have constructed a good defense, even an offense, if they had been better at using the media? And Walter, just on the issue of whether or not there was any pressure for the newspaper, on the newspaper, for you, I wonder as well, being the in community, because like I could not imagine what is was like no matter how much documentation you have. I am a child of Saint Patrick’s and Father Shanley was one of my favorite priests growing up. Because little did any of us know, but he did amazing things. And it hurt people who were nowhere near Father Shanley. I mean, who were not victims at all.

Shirky: To the first part of the question I would say, similar to the answer, I think the only thing the church could have done was to say “We have silenced, isolated, contained, and waited as our strategy from we don’t even know how long.” But that strategy always worked. And in fact Law’s behavior in 2002 seemed to suggest — because he was getting a do-over of the Porter case from 1992 — he seemed to believe that that same strategy was going to work. It would have taken I think a genius to have said these 10 years are when our decades-long strategies is broken. But even if the church had had that genius and they had been high enough, what the church should have said was “house cleaning: we are suddenly demonizing pedofile priests. We are going to publicly excoriate them, defrock them, kick them out. And we are going to do this in country after country all at the same time, because if we don’t do it, it is going to happen to us again.” I do not believe, I mean even the people reporting the story thought it was a local story, which is to say I don’t believe that that would be a — would ever have been a practical possibility in an institution as inherently conservative about media dealings as they were. But that would have been the only thing to do which essentially to say we’re going to do it to ourselves in order to contain the idea that we should be brought into civil accountability in the countries where we operate. But I can imagine a world like that, but only in the same sense I can imagine a world where everyone gets a pony. I can picture it, but I don’t think there’s any practical way that it could have actually happened.

Robinson: To your second question, the answer, if I remember the question correctly, was yes. Did I get a fair amount of heat from people I knew? Sure. Did it abate fairly quickly? Yeah. Once people began to pay attention to the documents and they realized it wasn’t the messenger. It was the message.

Photo by Annalese Duprey of the Shorenstein Center.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     April 22, 2010, 7 a.m.
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