Shirky’s basic argument is fairly straightforward and simple: that the emergence of new technologies in digital publishing and disseminating information have dissolved the boundaries separating professional journalists from amateurs, changing the norms associated with journalistic privilege (like shield laws and credentialing). Shirky doesn’t argue that professional journalists will cease to exist—although he does make a striking comparison to the profession of Scribe, which did disappear after the emergence of movable type—instead Shirky says simply that the distinction between the two groups is increasingly blurry: “What was once a chasm has now become a mere slope” (p. 77). Journalists have been, in Shirky’s view, blinded by their claims of professional status and thus far too slow to recognize the new competitive pressures they would face from amateurs as print transitioned to digital.
Some of the examples of how amateurs are changing the notions of “who is a journalist” are quite interesting and worth summarizing. Shirky illustrates how the gatekeeper role of journalists has been undermined by the growth in amateur publishing through the example of Sen. Trent Lott’s remarks about Strom Thurmond and the way the story developed online before forcing its way onto the front pages of mainstream media outlets. It’s an example of how traditional publisher’s stranglehold over deciding what’s newsworthy is breaking down. Instead the mass public is increasingly able to make their own determinations about newsworthiness by repeating and editorializing and spreading information around about stories they deem worth reading on their own. I should emphasize, however, that the initial few reports about Lott’s speech that sparked the blogosphere’s initial interest in the story were published by traditional news outlets, not blogs. These outlets were slow to piece together the significance of the quote and did not at first follow up with additional newsgathering. But as Shirky notes, amateur publishing tends to “rely on corrective argument more than traditional media do” (p. 65).
Although there are surely other better examples since 2008 of stories that more purely bubbled up from blogs and later made the leap to traditional news outlets, it’s worth considering in more detail the other skill sets that separate professional journalists from amateurs that are far more difficult, although by no means impossible, for the amateur to acquire—the training in newsgathering, in source-building, in reporting, in filing FOIAs, and obtaining information that is not just readily available through a search engine query, and getting the stories from people who may not want to talk or whose voices, for whatever reason, have not already been digitized and made accessible to the mass public. In other words, Shirky is no doubt correct that the definition of professional journalist is increasingly divorced from earlier definitions, which implied simply an association with a traditional news outlet, but that doesn’t mean there is nothing separating professional journalists from amateurs anymore. It’s just much harder, without a certain level of media literacy, to tell the difference now.
One of the other intriguing examples Shirky offers is that of amateur photographers and iStockPhoto, which greatly reduces the costs associated with obtaining stock photos for publication purposes (from $100+ per photo to $1). Sites like iStockPhoto have upended the traditional business practices of freelance photographers and erased the distinction between professionals and dabblers, and Shirky jokes that the only thing separating the two anymore is an arbitrary definition from the IRS that a “professional” is someone who makes at least $5000 a year from selling his/her photos. Sites like iStockPhoto really have made it so much more difficult for professional freelance photographers to even meet that IRS definition anymore, to actually make a living wage from their work. As long as amateurs are willing to practically give away their work for nothing, those who pursue it professionally are forced to find another line of work, or at least another source of supplementary income. For something like photography, we may be less concerned about the consequences of what we’re missing out on as a result, but given the extent to which we rely on reporters and journalists for the functioning of our democratic systems, the consequences here seem far more worrisome. As Shirky notes, “If everyone can do something [publish information], it is no longer rare enough to pay for, even if it is vital” (p. 79). Except it’s not clear to me that everyone can actually do the thing that journalists do. The publishing side is no longer a rare commodity, but the practice of professional journalism isn’t just about publishing. The content matters too.
One other point I’ll add. Shirky argues “the effortlessness of publishing means that there are many more outlets.” He continues, “The same idea published in dozens or hundreds of places can have an amplifying effect that outweighs the verdict from the smaller number of professional outlets” (p. 65). Although it is true that—concerns about the digital divide aside—publishing is now open to many many more people than ever (“An individual with a camera or a keyboard is now a nonprofit of one, and self-publishing is now the normal case,” p. 77)—this is only true in a meaningful sense if people are actually reading all this new content. Instead, and perhaps because of the ubiquitous nature of information in our digital media age, there is evidence to suggest that we rely even more so on a small range of outlets to help guide our understanding of what’s news, what’s worthy of paying attention to, and how to make sense of the world we live in.