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.

6 Responses to What’s in a name? The saving of an important cultural institution – journalism.

  • Tom:

    Jake, clearly your friend is some old cranky legacy journalist who is full of crap and trying to find an excuse for his inability to adapt. Journalism today is maybe best defined like pornography — it’s a personal thing; you know it when you see it.

    We used to define it as independent and objective reporting of the facts. That definition no longer works (and was a load of hooey anyway). Then it was just sort of defined by default, as the stuff done by people who got paid to report by recognized media organizations. Basically, the problem is journalists enjoyed leaving it undefined — because it allowed us to do whatever we wanted — and now we’re dealing with the consequences of that lack of definition.


  • R. Lukes:

    This article is very thought provoking. We are in the midst of some huge changes and some introspection on all this helps us understand where we are. But, who knows we we are going.

  • ecn:

    I don’t know that anybody savvy has ever believed that reportage of any kind can be fair and unbiased (only the O’Reilly Factor can claim that distinction). The minute you put typewriter ribbon to paper about anything you’ve committed the sin of bias — we all have some internal framework that we can’t escape to attain ultimate objectivity.

    But that’s sort of beside the point anyways. What I like about Jake’s piece is that while the idea of “journalism” may be in transition, I think the role that journalists have traditionally played still matters. A lot. The idea of citizen journalists is b.s. You can’t just espouse opinions as facts. Sure, life without an editor is fun, but what results? If getting to objectivity is impossible, it’s at least nice to know that some amount of fact checking and reining in of rants-cum-facts is happening at some level, somewhere.

    And where the hell has that gone again….? I know we put it somewhere….

  • Joy Mayer:

    Interesting post, Jake. I’ve been a part of a lot of “what is journalism?” conversations. I’m fascinated by the definitions that get offered up (and have assigned that exercise to my students). It sounds like you’re saying that to be considered a journalist, you need to be paid, and you need to do pretty meaty journalism that could negatively reflect on an institution. If that’s the case (correct me if I’m misunderstanding), how much of a typical daily newspaper counts as journalism? What percentage of the content fits that bill? If I as a paid newspaper journalist cover the home and garden show, is it journalism?

    I’m working on a project on community engagement in journalism, and definitions are a real challenge. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    Joy Mayer, @mayerjoy

  • JakeBEllison:

    Thanks for the exchange. The only point I was making about money was that for journalism to remain or become a powerful cultural force we will need economically stable journalists and organization that can support them with the increasingly sophisticated tools and legal protections/advocacy necessary to take on the array of powerful forces seeking (as always) to hide, sneak, steal and manipulate.

    Money itself is not part of any definition I would give for “Journalism,” but it is necessary for a healthy core of journalists.

    What is Journalism? I would say that it is the presentation of information gathered firsthand from at least one original/direct source with some kind of verification (a second credible source, another original document etc.). The presentation, the story must have the constant potential for damaging any and all organizations, people (even children), ideology or social movement (not an exhaustive list).

    So if a reporter goes to a garden show and reports on the number of people who have attended the event (say) or does a profile of a gardener, then you have a source, and confirmation should be easy to achieve. If the gardener says he has grown great tomatoes, the reporter should see the tomatoes, confirm that gardener grew them and get outside expert to confirm they are great. Or, if the tomatoes are not at hand, the reporter can get either an independent document (first place at the fair) or another source confirming that the tomatoes could be credibly called great.

    If the reporter will not report a negative event at the garden show (an infestation of maggots, say), a low number (say 10 people showed) or criticism of the gardener’s tomatoes, (whether the reporter actually writes a negative story or not) then the report cannot be journalism. It can only be marketing, no matter who does it.

    No matter how intriguing or true a story might be, without the potential that it could turn out critical or damaging (or even positive, if the reporter has shown up to the gardening event with an axe to grind), then it cannot be considered independent or fully trustworthy. Notice I have not said that this is what has always passed as journalism. In fact it has been a constant struggle to create and maintain newsrooms free of marketers and advocates.

    Some will say that human beings cannot be objective and will always see information from a particular point of view and so this is not a feasible standard. But a reporter does not have to be objective to be willing to write a critical story. A war correspondent might very well love the people he/she is with, but if the reporter is not willing to report on murder or abuse or failure by those troops, then his/her report is not Journalism.

  • Joy Mayer:

    Jake, what you’re saying makes a lot of sense. I think I understand your note to meant that if the reporter/journalist/information gatherer’s motivation is to paint an accurate, fair picture, whether it turns out to be complimentary or not, the product is journalism.

    Intent, then, is king.

    I tend toward a broader definition of journalism, but I agree with the points you’re making overall. Thanks for the clarification!