What’s the Role of Policy in Times of Collapse?

Clay Shirky has a thoughtful piece on his blog on “The Collapse of Complex Business Models” where he applies the lessons of Joseph Tainter’s 1988 book, The Collapse of Complex Societies to the shifting media industry. Shirky’s reflections on the challenges and opportunities that exist in times of collapse pose some interesting questions for public policy.

Tainter’s essential theory is that complex societies collapse not in spite of their complexity but because of it. Shirky summarizes: “Early on, the marginal value of this complexity is positive—each additional bit of complexity more than pays for itself in improved output—but over time, the law of diminishing returns reduces the marginal value, until it disappears completely. At this point, any additional complexity is pure cost.” For Shirky, this tension is at the heart of many questions about the future of media and he suggests that paywall advocates are essentially arguing that they need to find ways to make web users pay up because otherwise, “we will have to stop making content in the costly and complex way we have grown accustomed to making it. And we don’t know how to do that.”

Shirky’s piece emphasizes how this tension is playing out in the online video space, but I think it raises relevant questions for the broader journalism ecosystem, especially regarding the role of government and public policy. “Some video still has to be complex to be valuable, but the logic of the old media ecoystem, where video had to be complex simply to be video, is broken,” writes Shirky. “Expensive bits of video made in complex ways now compete with cheap bits made in simple ways. “ Later he continues:

“When ecosystems change and inflexible institutions collapse, their members disperse, abandoning old beliefs, trying new things, making their living in different ways than they used to. It’s easy to see the ways in which collapse to simplicity wrecks the glories of old. But there is one compensating advantage for the people who escape the old system: when the ecosystem stops rewarding complexity, it is the people who figure out how to work simply in the present, rather than the people who mastered the complexities of the past, who get to say what happens in the future.”

Because I think about these issues through the lens of policy, my first question was (perhaps predictably), how can policy help this transition? Are there policies that could help lower the costs of journalism and make it easier for the innovative dispersed members of old media to get new projects off the ground? Right now, there are longstanding policies in place that have shaped our media system and have benefit the incumbent media giants over innovative start ups. We need policies that better support the new shifting news ecosystem.

Shirky’s point about the different values and costs of video rings true in terms of news as well. Some can be simple and produced in new ways with new tools, but much of it is complex and demands significant investment. If legacy media institutions, driven by profit margins and shareholder demands, continue to cut costs and produce news and information that is as cheap to produce as possible (think evening news full of sports and weather or look at 90% of cable news) then how can policy and public funding support the institutions (both new and old) that are doing the critical, complex news we need.

But I also asked myself, “how might policy impede this transition.” At a future of journalism forum at the National Press Club earlier this month, Jane Hamsher, the founder of Firedoglake.com said that her concern about subsidies is that historically they have served to prop up incumbent models. They tend to privilege those already in power, not the up-and-coming innovators. This is a legitimate concern that we have to address. In my writing for Free Press and SaveTheNews.org I have consistently reinforced the idea that any new policy to support journalism must foster innovation, going so far as to suggest a federal R&D fund for journalism experimentation.

Public policy is no silver bullet – it’s just part of the larger debate. These are not easy questions and I would love to hear your thoughts.

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