What’s in a name? The saving of an important cultural institution – journalism.
My wife and I were out having beers with some friends and we were talking about journalism. I know. Everyone is doing it.
You see my friend runs a blog (which made me think about the cost of a pint each time he ordered one) and he has been getting shit from his backers for doing too much original critical reporting for his posts. The people paying him to work 24 hours a day want him to be “a part of the conversation,” to do more aggregating and derivative commentary – you know, link to other people’s original reporting or to a press release and sip some of the value off of that content. (A great article about the pressure he and other in the news industry are under and the risk that carries for society is here: http://www.cjr.org/cover_story/the_hamster_wheel.php?page=all)
I get it and he gets it – you’ve got to have hits and links and all that SEO stuff. That’s where the money seems to be and that is the only way a news organization can tell if it is at all relevant, apparently. But we were still bitching about it (which was sort of a relapse for me since I am no longer a journalist. I work in PR. A bit more on that later). Anyway, when I left the bar, wondering what non-journalism delights I might discover on my leisurely Sunday – I felt right as rain. My blood pressure dropped. All that.
However, I woke up with a conversation hang over: What the hell is a journalist? What is journalism? Does it matter if we no longer have a cultural, broadly accepted definition?
Seems like everyone is running around talking about being a journalist in one way or another. Hell, apparently, we’re all journalists: Twitterers are journalists; bloggers are journalists now; your Facebook status is a form of journalism; a five minute YouTube freak-out is a veritable expose. But we can’t all be journalists just because we say so. That’s like kindergarten gone wild – everyone is in first place; everyone gets to be president and during your coffee break in the White House, you can toggle your browser back to your blog, Twitter page or whatever, post a link to the New York Times, make a snarky remark and, bing bang, you’re a journalist too.
We all know that just can’t be, but as soon as you start cutting certain content out or certain platforms, somebody starts running around waving their arms, calling you out for being bigoted or worse: OLD FASHIONED, behind the times, out of touch, unwilling to accept change. You should be institutionalized or at least kept away from anyone under the age of 35.
But think about this: According to the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, State of the News Media 2010: “Our ongoing analysis of more than a million blogs and social media sites … finds that 80% of the links are to U.S. legacy media.” Pair that with: of “4,600 sites, the top 7% collect 80% of the traffic. And the top 20 sites attract the majority of that.”
I think that means that culturally we are still judging content from people and organizations that we can agree are “journalists” and doing “journalism” as the core value in the economic maelstrom of the “link economy.” But because we have allowed the designator “journalism” to signify as much noise as substance, we are continuing to risk complete erosion of this bedrock of democracy.
Now, I’m not a journalist (although I was one for 22 years) because I don’t get paid to tell stories that could negatively reflect on the institution I work for or any other institution for that matter. I do find true stories. I interview people and determine the more important parts from the less important, and I tell true stories. But that process does not make me a journalist.
So, what is it that is “journalism” and why does it matter, really? We all need to draw the line for our culture – “This is journalism and of a higher cultural value than all this other stuff.”
This isn’t new.
When I was a journalist, we used to draw the line, sharp and clear, between print journalism and TV news and as evidence of our worth we would point to the fact that TV news constantly derived its news from what it read in the morning papers. TV reporters had big chips on their shoulders because of this and would toss 60 Minutes in our faces in defense, but that only really stood to prove the point.
But not enough people draw that line anymore or not publicly enough. “That’s not journalism! That’s derivative noise!” And, consequently, my friend and many, many others are working harder to match noise with noise.
Perhaps, if critical, original reporting (which is the single most important quality that makes a story “journalism” as opposed to simple observation or gleaning someone else’s reporting) is so important to us, then the market will figure it out. The money will begin to flow in the direction of the value. But really? The most obvious thing about marketing is that it works. People’s perceptions are not shaped by critical thinking; they are shaped by other perceptions. And journalists and the organizations that pay for it need to start marketing the hell out of “journalism” to reshape perception.
So, here’s what I propose. Like organic farmers who have banded together and who continue to fight for a clear “stamp” that designates a piece of fruit or a vegetable as “organic,” you journalists who are left out there need to band together and establish a “stamp” that designates “journalism.” Americans will still look at the derivative noise more than quality information, but it’s how you begin to turn the tide, shore up the ramparts, save what authentic value there is still in the media.
The rest of us have to play our part by not calling ourselves “journalists” and by not calling our most recent blog post, snapped photo or twitter observation “journalism.”
Jake Ellison worked in newspapers for 22 years, 10 at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until it closed in 2009. He later worked in marketing. In 2011, he became the online managing editor of KPLU.org.