This is a comment I wrote for an earlier post about the role of journalists. I hope you don’t mind but I’ve copied it into a post because it is actually longer than most things I write and the debate is moving on. Let me know what you think!
I think one of the things that seems to be misunderstood between commenters is the thorny issue of the importance of journalism.
I think there are two areas that need to be unwoven in this debate:
One is making sure we understand what we mean when we talk about journalism.
The second is making sure when we talk about journalism being essential, we understand what we think it is essential for.
OK, so trying to define journalism is an essay in itself and I know I’m going to fall far short with this attempt, but here goes:
Journalism seems to be a catch-all for many types of writing that is triggered by current or relevant events.
- Information about events and occurances that are deemed to be significant (important, dramatic, entertaining or useful).
- Interviews with individuals of interest to ascertain their opinions and stances on topics deemed to be significant.
- Features and background information that place topics of significance into a wider context.
- Critical assessment on siginificant issues in the form of comment.
Some of this can be done by people who have not been trained as journalists.
If you don’t believe me then go ask:
- Ahmed Bilal, founder of Soccerlens.com
- Andy Baio, founder of waxy.org (which helped dig out the Miss Alaska video of Sarah Palin)
- Pat Phelan of patphelan.net who looks at the telecommunications industry whilst operating a business in it.
And more locally in Birmingham:
- Pete Ashton, founder of the creative industry news blog createdinbirmingham.com.
- Steve Gerrard, founder of gig review blog brumlive.com.
- Nicky Getgood, who is keeping Digbeth residents in the know about local issues at “Digbeth is Good“.
This is news. They do not cover EVERYTHING that newspaper journalists cover, but what they produce is certainly not all opinion and conjecture.
Therefore, I think its important that we are clear what we are saying trained journalists can produce that these people can not.
This is important because that defines, in part, the value of journalists in the future.
We also have to be honest. What proportion of this value do we currently utilise in our products?
Personally, I think journalists are valuable when they have the time and the training to work with the community they serve, identify and then investigate issues that do not seem to add up. They can then convey what they have discovered in a clear way (and that’s not just by story writing).
I might be wrong about this though, I’m still questioning.
But, once we have decided what we mean when we talk about trained journalists, then we have to understand what we mean when we say their work is essential.
I think as part of this we need to ask two questions:
1. Is this “essential” journalism necessary for a healthy, successful and sustainable society?
2. Is this “essential” journalism necessary for a healthy, successful and sustainable news business? (I.e it has strong appeal to a market , makes the business profitable and – if a plc – delivers shareholder value).
I honestly don’t think these two questions are as connected as people like to pretend they are.
If newspaper journalists were given time to “‘create’ real stories,” would that really make more people buy newspapers? Would it really make more people advertise with them?
If it was the quality of the investigative journalism that drove the market would the UK newspapers landscape look like it does?
I think we need to understand what we’re arguing here.
I don’t think anyone is saying that the skills of journalists are worthless, unimportant or unnecessary.
But, I think we seriously need to get past the emotional attachments we have to our industry and ask what skills we offer that are unique and valuable (both in business and societal terms) and then what is the best vehicle for us to undertake them in.