Investigative reporting “overinvestment in speculative work,” says Shirky

“Newspapers’ ability to produce accountability journalism is shrinking,” Internet-focused writer and NYU professor Clay Shirky said recently at a talk at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center.

Ethan Zuckerman outlines Shirky’s statements to the audience of journalists, scholars and interested parties that gathered at the “brown-bag” talk, at his blog My Heart’s in Accra.

“The coherence of newspapers is no longer logical. Someone who just wanted a crossword puzzle – why would you next tell them about news in Tegucigalpa?”

He added that the hybrid model of the newspaper evolved because “it’s what print is capable of.”

An essay Shirky wrote in March of this year, “Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable” was provocative and became a major talking point among media watchers after it was posted to Shirky’s blog. Readers posted 1,110 comments to the post.

In his talk at Harvard, he compared investigative reporting (or “speculative work”) to technology R&D, noting that the only companies that systematically do R&D are the those that have (or believe they have) a monopoly. As with R&D, “speculative work” is something companies comfortable with their position in the market can do. 

He said he wanted to be clear he is not celebrating the death of newspapers:

“A bad thing’s happening. People aren’t taking seriously the idea that this is going to get worse for the forseeable future. Increasing corruption is probably baked into the current environment.”

He added that society is facing “a long trough of decline in accountability journalism” and that the goal should be to “minimize the depth of that trough, and hasten its end.”

Clay Shirky is set to speak on a panel titled “What’s Next for News: A Conversation About the Future of Journalism” at Ryerson University on Oct. 2.