Who’s A Journalist?

The question is posed by Dan Gillmor in Salon. He expands on the question: “What should we call the people who are creating valuable new information in the new-media ecosystem?”

Part of the reason for his query is that he is close to finishing a book called Mediactive that sets out to “persuade people to become much more active users, not passive consumers, of media.”

On a practical level, Gillmor has a major point when he notes that how you define a journalist has real-word impact. “So-called shield laws, for example, aim to protect whistle-blowers and the journalists whom they tell about government or corporate wrongdoing. Some states specify who counts as a journalist, which leaves out a huge range of people who effectively practice journalism nowadays,” he writes.

Aside from that, I think Gillmor is making a bit of a mountain out of a molehill. As in earlier post here at Celleno when I considered a similar question, doesn’t it come down partly to the product rather than the “producer.” A point Gillmor himself recognizes when he writes: People often ask who, in the anyone-can-publish world, is a journalist? I tell them it’s the wrong question. The right one: What is journalism?”

In my post Bloggers as Journalists I wrote: “Blogging can be journalism when being done by a trained journalist or by an amateur who has trained themselves. And for both the end-goal is journalism. What do I mean by that? For it to be journalism, surely, there are certain standards and approaches to be followed? Facts and views have to be gathered, people have to be interviewed off or on the record and that can’t all be done just by online research. Those standards may be relaxed when it comes to opinion journalism, but even then there are certain rules of fairness and accuracy to be observed. Above all, actual knowledge can come in useful – the best of journalism is digging out the truth, as much as it can be known, throwing light on complex problems, explaining process, bearing witness to conflict and loss and terror and tragedy.”

And not just bloggers, of course. My former Cato Institute colleague Radley Balko was producing brilliant journalism at Cato when he was meant to be a research scholar or some such thing — I have forgotten his official title. His work on no-knock raids was the kind of old-fashioned investigative journalism that won people Pulitzers!

Gillmor doesn’t like the word “journalist” even when it comes to old media. “I share some disdain for the word. When I was a reporter I called myself a reporter. When I was a columnist I called myself a columnist. Calling myself a journalist, which I did from time to time, tended to make me feel like I was pretending to a higher role than the craft, however vital and honorable it may be, merited.” My father — a London newspaperman — had a similar dislike for describing himself as a journalist. But I never have — it is a useful catch-all word for the different functions of the profession. One can then always narrow it done after. And surely the same can hold true for new media practitioners. Can’t we call them online journalists as opposed purely to print journalists? Or multi-media journalists, etc.

By using new terms don’t we add to the rift between new and old media, allowing some of the old to denigrate or downplay the new, and the new not appreciate that some of the approaches, standards, etc of the old remain vaild and important?

Balancing the Free with the Purchased

Maurice Levy, the head of marketing group Publicis, strikes me as making sense when it comes to the newspaper pay-wall debate. Unlike Rupert Murdoch (see earlier posts), Levy is far more nuanced about the balance that will be needed probably between free and paid content — that is if newspapers are going to attract traffic and not put off readers while at the same time making some money.

Speaking to MediaGuardian at the start of the inaugural Abu Dhabi media summit, Levy, stressed that it is “not enough to have a big audience on the internet”, with media companies needing to find a mix between free and paid-for online content to survive in the digital era.

“The future of analogue media will not be supported by advertising alone. They will have to have profitable access to the internet. It’s not enough to have a big audience on the internet,” he said.

“Content has value and that’s something for which I have a strong point of view. I think media giving away their content is not a good service to themselves. It’s a shame, a pity. This content has a lot of value and it has to be valued reasonably,” he said.

The key will be to have some content that is free, but other elements only available for subscribers.

Bailing Out the Newspaper Industry

A blog on the Web site of The Hill newspaper is running a post that suggests that President Obama is prepared to look at a bailout for the newspaper industry. The post has drawn quite rightly screams of outrage from readers, who wonder where all the bailouts are going to end. Actually, it isn’t clear, if you read closely the President’s remarks, that Obamawould endorse any direct government subsidies to ailing newspapers: all he seems to be saying is that there would be tax breaks for newspapers which converted themselves into non-profits — they would get those tax-breaks anyway, if they became non-profits.

The idea that papers should get direct government subsidies is an awful idea. There should be a separation between government and the press – or do we want the US press to end up as a Soviet press, or an Italian one for that matter. Like any commercial industry,  the newspaper industry should stand on its own economic feet. Okay, I supported the bailout of the banks, but that was only because the whole house of capitalist cards would fall without government intervention.

Newspaper owners and management have a lot to blame themselves for — they failed on the whole to anticipate the consequences of the internet and still are failing to take advantage of what the internet can offer their businesses and they still seem not understand that they have to match up content with audiences. The Washington Post is only now planning to integrate its newspaper and Online divisions, something it should have done years ago as several British newspapers did, most notably the Telegraph Group. And newspaper managements still aren’t thinking straight about pay-walls for their Online content: many newspaper editors say all content should be paid for which would only see falling traffic and declining ad revenue.

No Wonder the Newspaper Industry is in Dire Straits

Maybe it will seem unsympathetic to some if I question why anyone should be guaranteed a job for life. I admit I am sitting on the terrace of my small house in Italy enjoying a vacation. But I worked damn hard for this house and never had a job guaranteed when I was a newspaperman. As some of you will be aware, the Boston Globe’s Newspaper Guild looks like it will agree to a demand made by the paper’s owner for the end of lifetime job guarantees. Apparently, 190 members enjoyed that privilege. The bigger question — not one being asked by US newspapers as far as I can see —  is why they had those guarantees in the first place. It reminds me of the nonsense in the UK during the 1980s and earlier when the print unions and the National Union of Journalists controlled the British newspaper industry — to the detriment of the economic health of newspapers. 

Poor old newspapers – challenged by the Internet and let down by managements and unions.

Nice To Know You Are Appreciated

Fifteen editors have been shown the door at the Baltimore Sun — part of the  Tribune Co’s cost-cutting measures. In the case of the fifteen they really were shown the door with security guards ready to escort them from the building.

I had sympathy for Sam Zell when he tried to explain a few months ago to the Tribune bureau in DC that they had too many reporters in the capital. I know that comment will make me unpopular among old media hacks. But the plain fact is that US newspapers have on the whole been overstaffed for years by comparison with UK and European papers — and please don’t tell me that the quality of the US publications is better (Not that I am saying that all European papers are superior to their US counterparts). I still think that the Tribune’s flagship paper in Chicago is over-staffed, even after the recent cuts there. After shedding 53 editorial positions, the news-gathering staff remains at 430. That is a huge number by comparison with the Daily Telegraph or The Times in London.

However, showing good staff the door in the way that happened today at the Sun is tacky.

But the question is why was the Sun not reformed and changed years ago. Of all the metropolitan papers in decline, the Sun has been the most extreme in terms of huge circulation losses and fall-off in advertising revenue. It was clearly heading for demise. And to be frank the paper was increasingly thin and unreadable and boring. It didn’t give you a sense of Baltimore nor of the rapid social and economic changes that have altered the face of the city. The Sun had poor leadership — as with many of the metropolitan newspapers it sat on its laurels and enjoyed its virtual monopoly. The managements of US newspapers have been lacking in vision and innovative thinking, as much as the managements of the US car companies.

What is doubly sad about Baltimore, though, is that belately it did have a challenger: the Baltimore Examiner, which was a zesty newspaper that was enjoying significant increases in advertising revenue. That paper was closed by its ownership in favour of keeping the Washington Examiner open, a paper that is finding it much harder than its sister did in drumming up advertising revenue and a publication that can’t hope to see off the Washington Post or undermine a revived Washington Times.

Who Survives?

An interesting take on who might survive through the economic crisis and beyond among the online news and commentary sites from Matt Pressman at Vanity Fair . His points are fair and his comments about news aggregators such as Drudge and Google News are spot on: what happens to them when content is not free and content providers hide behind a pay-barrier? 

But he could have been more cutting about some of the news sites owned by newspapers. As my friend Jay Byrne, president of v-Influence Interactive, pointed out in a blog a few weeks ago, the newspaper industry has been lacking in practical development sense. I quote him: “What many newspapers don’t realize is that they have yet to perfect the basic mission of successful Web publishing: Link relevant content with relevant audiences for increased ROI opportunities for relevant advertisers. When they do, they may staunch their current hemorrhage and – gasp – perhaps make money online.” 

I think Jay in the blog could have added that newspaper sites are not good at bringing together, too, videos, blogs and Podcasts with text. And many newspapers are employing young hacks who just don’t write well.

 What is missing from Pessman’s piece is a wider viewpoint of producers and how knowledge-based organizations such as universities, NGOs, think tanks and charities, are beginning to be news and commentary platforms in themselves and are thriving in the world of RSS feeds. Of course, they don’t have the same kind of commercial constraints that for-profit news-sites and agrregators face.