Why there is no such thing as a professional journalist anymore

by Jason Preston on September 4, 2008

A profession exists because of scarcity. If it is difficult to do something, then the people who have the skills to do it are a relatively small subset of the population.

If that thing they can do has value to society, they will be paid money for their skills. They are professionals.

I read Here Comes Everybody a while back, and it has led me to write other posts. The death of the profession of journalism is something Shirky talks about very succinctly. And it’s hard to argue with his conclusions.

Anyone can do journalism

Journalism has never been the type of thing that you need years of training to do. Many journalism professors I’ve talked to, including Bob Sipchen, have been telling students for years that journalism school is largely a waste of time. You learn on the job.

The thing that has traditionally separated journalists from regular people is access to the tools of the newsroom and the audience of the newspaper (or television, or radio). A lot of things change when you remove the barriers to reaching a large audience.

Using services like WordPress and Blogger (never use Blogger), it’s possible for anyone with internet access to reach as many people as the New York Times without spending a nickle.

In other words, now that it’s possible for anyone to do what journalists do, it’s not a profession anymore. There used to be professional handwriters (scribes), and now everyone can write, so why pay someone else to do it?

Professional storytelling

The good news is that we still pay other people to write well. Newspapers, unlike magazines and books, have relied on the conveyance of information in their value proposition. In the past, taking a picture of what’s happening and transmitting it to hundreds of thousands of people cost tons of money.

Now it’s free and takes 20 seconds with a phone.

There will always be demand for people who can tell a story well. The profession of journalism is gone because there’s nothing special about finding something out and telling other people.

The profession of good journalism is going to live on.

Being able to take a topic, investigate it thoroughly, synthesize the information, and present it in a compelling and meaningful way to the public is a much different set of skills than being able to simply report.

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{ 4 trackbacks }

Friday free for-all: New media links and more « Ink-Drained Kvetch
09.05.08 at 7:34 pm
Printed Matters » Journalism is important
09.06.08 at 6:54 pm
Questions with Bill Lueders, news editor at Isthmus newsweekly in Wisconsin — Eat Sleep Publish
09.10.08 at 9:13 am
Is this journalism? — Eat Sleep Publish
03.24.09 at 9:35 am

{ 16 comments }

1 Digidave 09.04.08 at 2:12 pm

Totally agree.

I often say: Journalism will survive – but it won’t be called “journalism.”

There will always be “journalists.” People that are really good at digging information and telling important stories. I hope we can continue to pay them – so that the best can rise to the top and make a living doing what they do so well.

In the meantime – we are figuring out how.

2 Jason Preston 09.04.08 at 4:52 pm

@Digidave well said. I’m becoming more and more convinced that these journalists will be employed as columnists and magazine writers (staff or freelance), and that the bulk of newspaper reporting will be crowdsourced.

3 david 09.04.08 at 8:23 pm

You’re largely right — “journalist” can mean so many things to different people, and the phrase has largely come to mean “one who reports as their primary source of income” — regardless of whether the person is formally trained or educated.

One other point: one of the skills of good journalists – IMO – is that not only are they able to gather information and convey it effectively, but they must also be able to integrate all of the information that they receive and be able to see connections, links, and inter-related themes and ideas.

4 amy 09.04.08 at 10:28 pm

What’s wrong with Blogger? Just curious.

5 Tim Burden 09.05.08 at 7:59 am

I’m not a journalist. I’m a web programmer who does news websites. With that disclosure out of the way, and without meaning to offend, I think this analysis is wrong.

That distinction you bring up between journalism and “good” journalism is really important. It’s the difference between backyard mechanics and professional mechanics. And your argument says that since nearly anyone could buy some tools and put a ramp in their backyard, soon there will be no professional mechanics. But there are three features of the professionals, both journalistic and mechanical, that I think will ensure the survival of both:

1. They are accountable. Pro journalists (and their bosses) face libel suits and sanctions for plagiarism. Pro mechanics (and their shops) offer guarantees and face firings or loss of business.
2. They show up for work every day. So there’s always someone around to actually do the work. No guarantees of that with the amateurs.
3. They have access to deeper resources to help them get the job done. For mechanics that means other guys with specialties, expensive diagnostic equipment, etc. For journalists that means editors with years of experience, other people on specialized beats who can help with sources and contacts, etc.

You say, by turns “it’s not a profession anymore” and then “the profession of good journalism is going to live on.” Huh? You did a bait and switch. We already know that people tend not to get paid for shoddy or incomplete work. And whether someone got good enough to be professional in school or on the job seems largely irrelevant.

In a comment you seem to clarify: what you mean is that basic reporting won’t be for pay, and journalism – by which you mean people who can analyze and synthesize and write well – will still be. But even that I doubt. Who, for free, is going to go cover that boring town council meeting or [fill in your favourite boring blank] on demand?

6 Jason Preston 09.05.08 at 11:23 am

David – I agree, being able to pull things together to form a cohesive narrative is an important, “pro” level skill.

Amy – Blogger is a tool, and like any tool, it is appropriate for some things and not for others.

Anyone running a business should avoid hosted blog solutions because you’re not really in control of your content and you’re definitely not in control of your hosting. Although it’s unlikely, Google could shut blogger down tomorrow, erase all of your content, and there’s nothing you could do about it.

On a more practical level, I’m working with my boss on some search engine analysis that will probably end up as a white paper. We’re finding that 90-95% of the blogs on blogger are spam blogs, and that most people view blogspot/blogger blogs as having less credibility and authority.

Tim – you’re right, I should probably have argued that what we’re seeing is a “mass professionalization” of journalism.

The backyard mechanics in your analogy aren’t limited by their potential skill (I think any one person is as likely as any other to measure correctly if they put their mind to it), but by their access to equipment.

What’s happened in journalism is that the price of that equipment has fallen dramatically. I think the equivalent in the backyard mechanic world is if every block had a full-on workshop, all tools included, available for free to the public.

To hit your three points:

1. I think individual journalists will find themselves subject to libel suits just as big publications are. It’s all relative to your size, and if you don’t matter, then the libel probably doesn’t either.
2. I don’t think that we’re heading towards a world where journalists are unpaid.
3. The current tension is between “hidden” pre-publication editing in the newsroom and “public” vetting in the blogosphere. It’s Encyclopedia Britannica vs Wikipedia. I have no idea which one will turn out to be more effective in the long run, but I can tell you which one is cheaper.

Who, for free, is going to cover that boring town council meeting or [fill in your favourite boring blank] on demand?

Here’s who: West Seattle Blog 😉

7 Monica Guzman 09.05.08 at 11:35 am

“Who, for free, is going to go cover that boring town council meeting or [fill in your favourite boring blank] on demand?”

Tim Burden, you’ve hit on one of my biggest worries.

I’ve talked with a lot of interested people outside journalism who believe wholeheartedly that citizen journalists – empowered by effective online tools – will replace everything professional journalists do.

It’s not that I don’t think that would be awesome – it would be. And what a cool world we’d live in if that worked.

But we can’t let go of professional journalism until we can be assured – assured! – that someone is going to cover that boring meeting in every community in America.

Granted, professional journalists are missing out on a lot – and are being shown up in many ways by a new crop of hard-working neighborhood bloggers. But if no one is around to check that everything is being covered, how do we know it will be?

Maybe that’s the next step.

8 Monica Guzman 09.05.08 at 11:38 am

And Jason – yes, West Seattle Blog does it and does it SO WELL. But she’s still one in a million (though she’s inspiring hundreds to follow along – and that’s awesome). She’s enabled to do it by a passion, commitment and drive that are very hard to come by.

That’s not to say people like her won’t pop up in communities all over America. But again – are we ready to rely on that?

9 Jason Preston 09.05.08 at 12:03 pm

Monica – I think that part of this transition means letting go of the “professional” journalism delineation.

I don’t think that anyone is expecting a proletariat revolution complete with random acts of journalism being committed in the streets.

What’s happening is that the internet has made it cost effective (read: profitable) for publishing as a small business. Make no mistake, Tracy @WSB is passionate about her work, but I don’t think she would be doing it if she didn’t think it could make money in the long run.

So really, I was being a bit glib, and now I have to pay for it: nobody is going to do it for free. Thousands of people are going to do it for money.

10 Jason Preston 09.05.08 at 12:05 pm

And, at the risk of being snarky again, the neighborhood blogging panel I attended last night made a point of showing that major news media aren’t covering every town in America.

According to the Rainier Valley Post, they’re regularly skipping over child shootings in a community 10 miles away from the Seattle P-I offices.

11 Monica Guzman 09.05.08 at 12:12 pm

“Nobody is going to do it for free. Thousands of people are going to do it for money.”

Right on. So I guess this is just wordplay? The whole “letting go of professional journalism” thing? Because there are two main differences between “professional” journalists and those who are not: making money and being part of a company. You acknowledge neighborhood bloggers are doing it for money, or at least the prospect, a lot of them, and once they start hiring other reporters and building networks, like Tracy and Cory of MyBallard are hoping to do, they will begin to operate very much like a company.

So why bother with talking about what “professional” means? It seems the real distinction here is between media that have been around for a long time and are stuck in ancient bureacucracies and those that are starting up from scratch in a new era, pushing forth online and behaving like start-ups.

12 Jason Preston 09.05.08 at 2:43 pm

Monica – there is definitely some word play going on here.

As I admitted to Tim, it would have been better for me to call it the “mass professionalization” of journalism.

The really important change to grasp, in my mind, is that there is no longer anything preventing me, that lady down the street, or her uncle Jimmy from becoming a journalist. The barrier is gone.

Which completely changes the game for newspapers, and it could help explain why so many people seem to resent “journalistic elitism,” which exists because in the past, not everyone could be a journalist.

13 Monica Guzman 09.05.08 at 2:47 pm

So I guess what we’re talking about here isn’t the end of professional journalism – but a new beginning. I am OK with preserving the word “journalism” in a world where it is no longer exclusive. The word stands for something far greater than simply the act of reporting news. It makes reporting news a craft, complete with standards, ethics and responsibilities. We’ll be better off if we remember that.

14 Tracy @ WSB 09.05.08 at 2:54 pm

Thanks to Monica for flagging me to this, I’m a little behind on all the alerts and feeds that usually point me to mentions of us (and West Seattle in general) fairly quickly …

Just a couple thoughts. Yeah, we might operate like a company someday. Actually, we ARE a company. State LLC, city business license, all that stuff. But having worked for both some small media concerns (small dailies that are LONG since defunct, in Las Vegas and Davis, CA, plus a 3-person radio newsroom) and some large ones (Tribune, Disney), I can say the bureaucracy is indeed generally the problem, and at some point a lack of hunger on the part of myriad employees at myriad levels, for myriad reasons. Maybe this is one of those cases where the old has to collapse to make way for the new because the old has become inefficient, non-nimble, etc. (WITH SOME EXCEPTIONS – I have said often that I admire many of the P-I’s initiatives, not just “hey, we’re blogging” but also posting breaking news, etc. – but that is SUCH a rare exception – I have hair-curling tales from the big corporate joints where I worked).

As for moving in the perhaps-inevitable bureaucratic direction ourselves: Frankly, while I look forward to hiring someone by year’s end, at least part-time, I also dread it because I am cranking so much out so fast now, I can see hiring someone and winding up with the same volume of output for WSB just because I would be tempted to “slack off” a little and let that person do the five things we would have done INSTEAD of what we do, rather than IN ADDITION to what we do. Still thinking through that one.

Oh, and last but not least. Re: who’s professional and who’s not. I believe Jason pointed this out in the original post … schooling does not make you A Journalist. I am an excellent example of that. I’m a college dropout. I happened to wind up at a school which at the time had no journalism program – I was interested in music at the time, anyway – but because I also had long been a writer, I answered an ad in the college weekly paper (which operated DESPITE the lack of a journalism program), and while I spent four years working on that damn paper (learning and doing everything from typesetting to layout to humor writing to entertainment reviewing to news reporting), I accumulated about one year’s worth of credits (no credit for working on the paper, a few of us did get paltry stipends). Then I went to work fulltime as … a disc jockey.

Long and boring story results from there, but now after 30-plus years of it, I have a hell of a resume, three Emmy Awards, amazing experiences I will always remember, blah blah blah, and a fascinating future I am thrilled to be living every single crazy headache-inducing long day.

I have met some great journalists who happened to have J-degrees (even graduate work), and some with the education who could not write or report their way out of the proverbial paper bag. Again, as I say often, the proof is in the end result. Judge someone by their work, and whether it provides information – “journalism” and otherwise – that matters to your life.

Sorry, I’m rambling. Writing this from demolition stakeout in the car. Gotta switch to a more scenic location. P.S. I do think there are more people like me out there and all they need is TO BE BRAVE. Leaping out of my job last year, knowing all I had to support my family on was a highly penalized early 401k withdrawal and advertising revenue that at the time barely equaled a very part time job, was INSANELY risky. I have NEVER taken that kind of risk in my entire life. But if we can do it, anyone – WITH SINCERITY AND DEDICATION, among other qualities – can. Really.

15 Monica Guzman 09.05.08 at 3:41 pm

So many people are so glad you took that risk, Tracy.

I think my favorite point you made yesterday was to assert the power of hard work. People can market their blogs, start a Twitter feed, hand out cards, sponsor an event. But if their blog doesn’t do a service, if it doesn’t say something new, if the author isn’t driven by a passion for the community, the community won’t respond. Not really. Not fully.

Keep inspiring. A lot of people don’t know it yet, but we need more of you out there. Fast.

16 Tim Burden 09.05.08 at 5:15 pm

“I should probably have argued that what we’re seeing is a “mass professionalization” of journalism.”

Jason: Yep, I think that’s right. Much of the barrier to entry is gone. Individuals can now go ahead and give it a whirl, and if they’re good enough (professional enough?) they might even make a buck.

But a word of caution: the barrier is not completely gone. I found Tracy’s comment above really interesting (thanks Tracy) and what jumped out at me was that, sure, here’s someone who could strike out on her own, but look at the risk she documented! She had to take huge personal risk for just the hope of making some coin.

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