Tuesday, July 14, 2009...1:17 pm

Journalists can't afford to be purist about their trade anymore

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There’s a nice rant over at Fleet Street Blues decrying the media’s current seeming obsession with the delivery of media content over its practice.

The best thing about journalism isn’t blogging, or Twittering, or finding innovative multimeeja ways to tell a story, or even asking someone difficult questions Paxman-style. It’s about finding something out that no one knows, and telling people. Simple as that.

When it comes to learning your trade, they say, don’t get sidetracked with all that web technology malarkey:

If you want to be a specialist, don’t learn Dreamweaver or podcasting or how to put together Google map. Be a police reporter or an education reporter or a health reporter, and learn your field. 

My comment on the post hasn’t been approved yet (what – don’t they trust me?). But essentially, while I admire the sentiments, I think there are some fundamental problems with it. 

The post actually recognises some of them. At the end it says: 

If you want to be a journalist, then forget payment models, multimedia development and how to drive traffic. That’s not your job. Your job is to be a damn fine reporter and let the chips fall as they may. If they – the editors, publishers and readers – can’t figure out a way to pay for us, then so be it. They’ll miss us.

It’s that tiny detail – finding someone to actually pay for this stuff – that is at the crux of this whole “where is journalism going” debate. And, of course, if you’re one of the thousands of journalism graduates being spewed out of the higher education system every year, that’s not much comfort when you can’t find a job. 

I look on all that multimeeja nonsense as basically a tool. It’s a bit like saying if you want to be a specialist, don’t learn to type, or don’t learn to use InDesign. 

The tools of the trade are changing – and we need to keep up. The problem we face at the moment is that the tools of the trade are changing really fast. And the trade itself is also changing really fast, thanks to the double whammy of recession and technology change. 

That’s why I think the idea of the old-style investigative reporter, armed with just a notebook and the knowledge of his or her beat, is now a bit of a luxury. In order to be anything resembling a journalist, you’ll probably have to be able to set up and maintain a web site, know how to drive traffic and have some idea of payment models as well as being a damn fine reporter.

Hey, I never said it would be easy. But I don’t think there’ll be a choice for a lot of us…

4 Comments

  • Agreed. The notion that “we just do the journalism and you figure out how to pay for it” is part of the problem.

    Two reasons:

    a. The “great journalism” that we’ve been trained/educated/indoctrinated to champion as our ideal, for at least a century, has been made possible NOT because our readers wanted it, but because we did; it just so happens that we were able to extort the ad bucks to let us do it. Online, we can’t – and only now are we discovering that our idealised “great journalism” isn’t as indispensable as we thought it was.

    If you doubt this, answer this simple question: If it’s so great, how come nobody wants to pay for it? Ah yes, of course: they’re idiots and “they’ll miss us when we’re gone”. Nothing to do with us and our product, guv.

    b. Journalists are no longer separate from the grubby, vulgar, money-making end of the media machine. The new online revenue streams (such as they are) are very different from the ad-served-against-readership-numbers model. Journalists have a big role to play in revenue generation now, where they had none before.

  • All valid points – but it wasn’t intended only as a Luddite rant.

    Two points:

    1) A certain computer literacy is important… but all of those journalist graduates being spewed out of higher education institutions have got the computer bit down. What they’re less good at is the other skills of journalism – so, in general terms, that’s what they need to work at. Think of the last work experience student you saw… ten to one they were a ninja on Google, but their phone manner could use some work.

    2) The idea of a journalist knowing how to drive traffic, setting up his own website and doing his own journalism is a nice one – but it’s a myth. We blog as a hobby, but it doesn’t pay the bills, and with one or two possible exceptions no journalists at all are self-funding. So the point was we should stop wringing our hands over our inability to do the impossible, and become one-men journalism/publishing/advertising machines. If we’re going to make a success of journalism, we’re going to have to do it as part of a team which includes people who can make it pay and devote themselves full time to getting that payment. Anything is is a bit of a pipe-dream, at the moment at least.

    Just our two cents.. oh, and we absolutely do trust you. I’m just rubbish at getting round to approving the comments!…

  • Did I say Luddite? I never said Luddite…

    Well, yes – I know what you mean. Though actually journalism students are less down on Google and other web tech than you’d think.

    It may well be that we can’t turn into one-person content businesses. But when it comes to paid work in the roughly related media field, I’m noticing more and more of it requires more than a passing knowledge of web skills – including driving traffic, SEO, link-building and the like.

    And yes – you might say that’s not really journalism in the way we have got used to it for the past century. But I think that model of journalism – the intrepid reporter with his trusty notebook, answerable only to his editor and his principles – is dead or dying. It’s time has gone. It hasn’t been with us forever, and it won’t be with us forever.

    But you know – I’m not sure that will mean the end of “journalism”. Some of the most challenging journalism I’ve read lately has some from unpaid bloggers taking, say, local government to task over spending that doesn’t add up. And this is the kind of coverage that “real” journalists in the local media are neither numerate nor independent enough to pursue themselves.

    Does it make journalism a good career option now though? Maybe not…

  • [...] and ‘new’ media. And I think more than a few of us are saying the same thing. I found this post on Freelance Unbound a good read, [...]

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