Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A Second Great Age of Patronage

Clay Shirky, the NYU prof and journalism's Nostradamus, has a wonderful essay in the Cato Institute's online magazine that lays out the implications of how the subsidization of journalism is changing the craft in ways we won't fully understand for decades to come.

Some of his most tantalizing insight touches on the nonprofit model and the impact that nonprofits can have in the chaos that will follow the demise of newspapers. Please do read the entire essay. But here's a shortcut to the most salient bit, which follows his prediction of a "second great age of patronage":

In an age where the cost of making things public has fallen precipitously, patronage models suddenly look not just viable but eminently reproducible. The leverage to be gotten from motivations other than profit is now growing rather than shrinking; a poorly capitalized journalistic weblog is now likelier to reach a million readers than a well-funded but traditional journalistic outfit is.

Is this a good thing? A bad thing? Herein lies the Shirky genius. He doesn't tell us. And the difficult truth is that we have no way of knowing. Clearly, he sees a world in which the Rockefellers, Carnegies and Fords have an opportunity to preserve socially responsible journalism - or corrupt it into something that serves their own vision of truth, however worthy or not.

The lesson here, of course, is that the future of socially responsible journalism remains in the hands of those who care most about it. From the Medicis on down, patronage has had its pros and its cons. It's up to the practitioners to draw the ethical boundaries.

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