by CLAY SHIRKY, Cato

The hard truth about the future of journalism is that nobody knows for sure what will happen; the current system is so brittle, and the alternatives are so speculative, that there’s no hope for a simple and orderly transition from State A to State B. Chaos is our lot; the best we can do is identify the various forces at work shaping various possible futures. Two of the most important are the changing natures of the public, and of subsidy.

As Paul Starr, the great sociologist of media, has often noted, journalism isn’t just about uncovering facts and framing stories; it’s also about assembling a public to read and react to those stories. A public is not merely an audience. For a TV show with an audience of a million, no one cares whether it’s the same million every week — head count rules. A public, by contrast, is a group of people who not only know things, but know other members of the public know those things as well. Both persistence and synchrony matter, because journalism is about more than dissemination of news; it’s about the creation of shared awareness.

Consider, as an illustration, the difference between assembling a public for a newspaper, and for stories on that paper’s website. The publisher assembled the public for the paper, maintaining subscribers lists and distribution chains, and got to decide what front-page news was for those readers. This was a bottleneck of value that used to be enforced by the limitations of print and distribution, and by lack of competition for sources of written news.

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