What is journalism and is it really that essential?

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.

This includes:

- 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.

6 thoughts on “What is journalism and is it really that essential?

  1. Joanna, I think you are quite right that people have approached this discussion with different vocabularies. That has helped heat up the debate but at the same time has created a lot of noise. So let’s get our terms right.

    What is it that trained journalists bring to the table? Well, in my view, nothing. I sincerely believe that there is nothing a trained journalist can do that cannot be done better by an “amateur”. Being trained may help a great deal, but it is not the essential factor.

    Journalism is to a large extent a legacy business. As has been argued elsewhere on this blog, its legacy is built on a mythology. Let’s turn to one of the heroes in this mythology for an example: Veronica Guerin studied accountancy and political research. She was not a trained journalist. She did not achieve what she did because of her training; she achieved it because she was brave and because she could not just shut up. Back then, if you were the kind of person she was, you had to get a job in media to realise your passion. Today, all you need is an internet connection. Both then and now what you do not necessarily need is training.

    I think in the religion of Journalism As A Vocation a “trained journalist” is a mythologem that has nothing to do with training. With a few exceptions, most people tend to use it as a euphemism for “a journalist as I imagine a journalist should be”, in effect allowing them to turn their backs to change but still not appear too backwards. Well, guys, guess what: you do appear too backwards. You appear stubborn and arrogant, and not learned at all. That’s why people do not buy your newspapers, or at least do not buy enough of them so you can remain as you’d like to be, and are instead forced to change.

    This leads me to the second question. What is journalism essential for? This is an essential question. But I’d like to expand it: who is journalism essential for? Society is too big a group for any one media outlet to be able to serve it. What is healthy, successful and sustainable for one group will be exactly the opposite for another. Media organisations then should focus on their individual audiences. How will they do that if they believe that their “training” gives them the right to decide what is valuable, significant, important, dramatic, entertaining, useful or worthy of critique? Their only audience in this case is themselves. If journalism serves no-one else than itself, do we need it at all?

    I feel I have asked more questions than I have given definitions. I’ll try to compensate by an example that I think backs both my points. In Bulgaria, where I am based, there is a website which is rapidly gaining in popularity. You can check it out at http://www.bgreporter.com/ . Yes, it is not in English, but an inquisitive journalistic mind shouldn’t be put off by that; and Google Translate can help you get just about an adequate idea of what the site is about. In short, this is a WordPress blog where every registered user can post. Posts are edited and published. Posters get paid. This is a news website, where the majority of the authors are amateurs. The sheer variety of styles and opinions found there guarantees that, overall, it is a fairly balanced affair. It does not even need to have an idea of what its readers would like to read: it allows its readers to write what they damn please!

    Now, much has been said about how important journalism is for democracy. This, in turn, has been used to justify the need of some group of “trained” journalists who, the mythology goes, are the only ones capable of protecting democracy. But if a young and fragile democracy as Bulgaria’s can endure a website where amateurs play journalists, then surely Britain’s couldn’t be at such a great risk, could it?

    This website also answers another question. If bloggers can be better journalists than professionals, do we need professional media at all? We do, because people have to eat and most bloggers have jobs that do not allow them to devote as much energy and resources to their posts as they could if they were professionals. By paying its audience for writing the stories, bgreporter.com ensures that it will be constantly supplied with content. This is a hint.

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