Media140: What do journos do better, exactly?

[This is my presentation for the Media140 Sydney panel “Do Journos Do it Better? Journalists in SocMedia Communities”. This is being posted here automatically, at 5pm, just as the panel is scheduled to start. Given that sessions earlier in the day may cover similar ground, I may well re-word things as I go.]

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“Do journos do it better?” Do journos do what better? I think this is actually the more interesting question: What is it that journalists actually do in our society?

Or, to stick with the question, what do they do in “social media communities” — although as I’ll explain, all communities are “social media communities”?

Now if I were presenting an Oscar I’d start by quoting the dictionary. “The Macquarie Dictionary defines ‘journalist’ as ‘someone engaged in journalism’.”

Very helpful.

However “journalism” in turn is glossed as “the occupation of writing for, editing, and producing newspapers and other periodicals, and television and radio shows”.

So the question as stated is meaningless. Of course journalists are better at “It” — journalism — because they’re the ones doing it. If you’re not a journalist you’re not doing journalism, therefore you’re not merely bad at it, you’re not even doing it at all!

This is why I think the whole bloggers versus journalists debate was and still is so incredibly stupid. Both sets of people are doing much the same thing — creating words and pictures, probably about current events, maybe for money, maybe for the love of it or for professional status. Maybe they’re doing it well, maybe they’re doing it badly.

But during the Industrial Age, journalism with a capital “J” ended up meaning, specifically, the employees of industrial mass-media factories — especially newspapers. Employees whose jobs were to create the specific widgets of news needed by a production line — a five-paragraph story, a 30-second radio news item or whatever.

Or, with respect to my friends at the MEAA, “journalist” meant membership of a certain trade union.

Now, coming back to that word “social” in “social media”…

Humans are social critters. We’re inquisitive. We’re hard-wired to look for ways of understanding the world, to find out what others are up to, and slot it all into a coherent narrative. Society provides mechanisms to meet that demand.

At one end of the spectrum there’s a folk craft called “gossip” — and as anthropologist Robin Dunbar has pointed out, gossip is central to keeping societies running smoothly.

Up the other end we’ve got big institutions like the Church, Science and The Media constructing narratives they call, respectively, Belief, Knowledge and News. All of them, when threatened, refer to their narratives as “The Truth”.

Between them, folk practitioners and professionals and everyone in between manufacture enough news to fill our recommended daily intake. All choose from thousands of events those that support the narrative they want to construct — for whatever ultimate goal.

In the Industrial Age, only the big end of town was visible, with its cathedrals and newsagents. Everything else happened in small groups — socially! — and was ephemeral. We heard some juicy gossip, we laughed and smirked and, later, we exchanged knowing winks, but it wasn’t written down anywhere.

That’s changed. In the digital age, all that folk media — which I say again, has always been there — is now visible. Public. Permanent. Searchable. And pretty much everyone has, or soon will have, the tools for creating those permanent forms of media.

Eric S Raymond is one of the giants of open source software development. In 1997 he presented a paper called The Cathedral and the Bazaar which contrasted the traditional closed-shop process of developing software — the cathedral, where each release was packaged up with a big red ribbon before the public saw it — to the seemingly chaotic process of open source development, where everything happens in public, warts and all.

Until now, journalism — the making of news — has worked on that cathedral model. Journalists beaver away in their media factories and The Story is bestowed upon the grateful citizenry. You were told what the narrative was.

Now, though, the citizens are using new, cheap tools to figure out the narrative for themselves. In the eyes of an old-fashioned journalist it looks messy, “unprofessional”. The term “citizen journalist” grates. This is not journalism, they think — because it isn’t. It isn’t how they, as employees of media factories, do things.

An example to illustrate my point: the dust storm of 23 September. What was the journalists’ role in developing that narrative?

Well for a start, the dust storm actually started the day before in places like Broken Hill. But because industrial-scale news travels east to west in this country, it wasn’t officially a story until it hit the Sydney-based media factories.

On that morning, everyone woke up to an orange sky and started talking about it. Through their own conversations they soon worked out the extent of the storm, and through their own photos they created a shared cultural experience.

Like ants mapping out food trails, people did this by passing signals to each other — interesting photos and factoids and emotional responses — without central control. And because they knew the people they passed them to, these messages had plenty of personal resonance.

When the industrial media factories creaked into action, maybe only minutes or an hour later, what were they adding to that process? Were they just packaging that collective narrative for the folks who aren’t yet connected to the live global hive mind?

When everyone is connected, what does the capital-J journalist do that’s worth charging money for?

18 Replies to “Media140: What do journos do better, exactly?”

  1. “Like ants mapping out food trails…” – superb.

    There is one dimension of journalism I think we all still expect and rely upon from the main stream journalists: providing that narrative about the goings on within particular corridors of power. But as you describe, that’s not a difference in activity. That’s scope, resources and access.

  2. @Sylmobile: I had hoped there’d be discussion after my presentation, but it was the end of the day. I had intended my comments to be a challenge for journalists — or anyone else! — to explain what their role was in this new world. I think there are roles, and yes I think they’re about uncovering the hidden and sorting the wheat from the chaff. Amongst others.

  3. The simple answer is what would you find if you suddenly removed all journalists from the world? As with the removal of lawyers, and consultants for marketing and recruitment sectors, there would no doubt be an initial sigh of relief from many quarters that these bludgers who make a shilling from doing what ANYONE can do (hey, I have a blog and write emails!) have received their just desserts. And you know what, anyone probably can do these things. Just badly. Very badly. When your mum and your neckbearded mates are the primary critics of your blog, it does tend to skew perception.

    Fact is, people love to hate journos, and this provides half the drive for the industry. But apart from other bloggers, no-one can raise that much emotion about the blogerati. It’s so, y’know, MEH.

    That aside, probably an angle less likely to see Tony Cook grab the wrong end of your stick and shake for all it’s worth would be to focus on the ‘how’ rather than the ‘what’. Sure, the old paradigms will be shaken up by new technology but there will always be a need for folks with the information management skills of journalists to create a nice crusty surface for the swirling turgid morass of navel gazing toilet-break announcing social media masses.

    And blogs are old hat anyway. Five years from now, they will be the online equivalent of a hypercolor t-shirt. Expect to see people update you of their tedious doings in real-time 3D with olfactory plugins.

    Journos just need to do what I do with my wardrobe – just keep it cool homeboys, you’ll be back in style before you know it.

  4. When everyone is connected, what does the capital-J journalist do that’s worth charging money for; When will that be. in developing countries like Tanzania we will continue depending on them. i went though the article and seems very good for industrialised countries like yours. Any recommendation from the paper and media 140 can put to developing countries like ours

  5. @Dave: Some people have construed my piece as saying there was no longer any need for journalists or journalism. That’s not what I mean.

    What I mean is that the environment is changing, and some (many?) things that some (many?) employee-journalists did at specific kinds of media factories can now also be done in other ways. Plus new tools and ways of thinking make new things possible.

    So, in this changing environment, what is the new role of the journalist? There’s three levels to that question: individual humans who say their job is “journalist”; this craft or process we call “journalism”; and the businesses which sell these journalistic products.

    I think if journalists as individual people want to keep being paid to do this thing they call “journalism” for a living, they need some answers to these questions. Hand-waving about how important they are or how skilled they are isn’t enough. That’s just wishful thinking. Many excellent things have gone extinct before.

    I’ll write more about this another time — I have other commitments today — though I admit part of me thinks that all this has been well covered in the past couple of years. I wrote quite a bit a year ago in Trouble at t’paper” and Sunday Thoughts about Journalism.

    By the way, your “mum and your neckbearded mates” comment represents a corrupt debating technique, painting all people writing blogs as some inaccurate stereotype, and trying to use the size and composition of a writer’s audience to criticise the quality of the writing. Please take that tired old straw man elsewhere. A blogger could be anyone from, yes, an ignorant amateur right through to the leading professional in their field.

    @albert jimwaga: Hi! Long time… You ask a good question. I’ll answer it in another post another day, because there were some good discussions about social media and the Third World. I’ll let you know when that’s written.

  6. Ah Stil, (hey, I feel like Muad’Dib!), that there construin’ does need a bit of looking at. The dialogues thrown around do indeed tend towards the adversarial, and a lot of it has to do with how people inject their own empowerment issues into communications.

    On one hand, you do have many journos who believe they are indeed god’s gift to the written word and sneer in disgust at these talentless amateurs claiming they have a right to breathe the same rarefied air.

    On the other, you do will see the stereotypical ‘omg I am so Web two point oh rite now’ bloggers claiming that we have entered the age of aquarius (no wait, is it Taurus now? With all the bull flying around I would say so) and that they will be leading the information vanguard into the 25th century with their l88t ability to make the mundane magnificent.

    Sure, these are minorities but they are very loud minorities – and the instantaneous defensiveness on both sides of the fence is the clearest indicator that many people take these silly ideological positions seriously.

    I’m not sure how many journos you know but from your comments you don’t seem to know that many (or if you do they probably don’t invite you to their elegant soirees). It may surprise you to know that in my experience (which is VAST), many (especially the younger ones) are fully engaging with emerging technologies and integrating it into their work.

    Sure, we have luminaries such as Andrew Bolt who will only pen missives on the crispest hand-pressed Bombay paper delivered on a silver tray by ones’ own perfumed negro slave boy (and would you want them to do it any other way?) but by and large, most journos under the age of 60 are fully cognisant of the realities of the marketplace.

    Thankfully I am not a journo but I know plenty and the issue is the ‘factories’ as you put it, not the journalists. They do what they are paid to do, within the limits set by their employers, and they attempt to move their chosen medium forward as best they can.

    Of your three levels, the one that will bring the most valuable result (and the least whining from all parties) is the final one, an analysis of how businesses adapt to the changing marketplace. Journos, decent ones at least, are defined by their adaptability above and beyond most professions (it makes up for a lack of clearly defined personality you see). Work on educating the ones who leash them through annoying things like food and shelter payments, and much of the argument is moot.

    Good journos are more than capable of learning and implementing the tools used by part time bloggers/social media users – these are relatively simple skills and not the arcane arts many pretend them to be. Vice versa, most journalistic abilities are simple enough and plenty of bloggers would be well served emerging from the basement and picking a few up – but the best already have, of course.

    By the way, I LOVE corrupt debating techniques. The hoity-toity ‘I went to university and learned to sneer at straw men’ attitude is a perfect key for leveraging people into a good bit of nerd rage as opposed to smug self-righteous wallowing in ones’ own agenda. I believe enlightened debate is only possible after everyone has had a good rant and at least three self-referentially ironic giggles.

    Otherwise the internets become such serious business, don’t you think? 😉

  7. @dave: I think you’ve described perfectly the loud minorities on both sides who’ve perpetuated this daft journalists vs bloggers rubbish. Whether you think I’m in that noisy minority is another thing. I suspect I’m a bit of a hypocrite here.

    Still, I like to think my frustration is with the debate not moving forward as fast as I’d like, rather than with journalists themselves. I’d really like to hear how journalists are adapting their craft to use the new tools, and except for a remarkable few I’m not hearing much.

    Jay Rosen declared that battle over in 2005, but it seems that’s not so. In a more recent essay — which I can’t find just now — he said he realised that the two extreme ends of the discussion are each the “perfect other”, and the debate simply will ot die.

    I also think you’re right when you say the core principles of both blogging and journalism are quire simple to understand. Both are crafts which then take ages to master as the implications of those simple principles are understood though experience.

    Both bloggers and journalists improve with age. Unlike, say, mathematicians or fighter pilots, who do their best work when young.

  8. Dave, you make some good points – which seem totally fair enough in the real world. However, at conferences like the media140 for which this speech was given, there was a palpable sound of the wringing of hands for the ’emerging technologies’.

    Chris Uhlmann, bless his analysis, was one such figure. And the tripe from Overington was breath taking.

    Despite this speech being craftly pre-posted, in terms of its place in the event, it could not have been more apt. It was a ‘hang on a second this is happening, you don’t own it’ – and it worked really well in conjunction with Laurel Papworth’s fine effort about stories and their owners.

    For what it’s worth, the thing to keep in mind is, if we’re all tellin’ stories, then there’s going to be lots more crap and lots more goodness. It’ll cut both ways.

  9. @delperro: And another point is that we were specifically asked to address the question “Do Journos Do it Better? Journalists in SocMedia Communities”. I’ve since discovered that some other panellists — not necessarily on this panel — had also expressed concerns that we seemed to be being asked to revisit the debate.

    I wrote my piece with the express intention of derailing that thread, of saying, “I’m over this. Can we note that there’s change going on, and now discuss what we’re going to do in this new context?” Whether I was successful or now, well, who can tell?

    As an aside, in case people have missed it, I’m slowly posting links to all the Media140-related material over at Delicious, including some of the presentations.

  10. Well, I don’t know that many bloggers so I can’t say much for their state of mind. But I do know plenty of journos and I can say that a sense of professional insecurity tends to be what powers that blustering and defensive behaviour.

    It doesn’t matter what sector, communications people are always looked down on – as ANYONE can do what they do, right? When this opinion is generally voiced by people with half the brains and twice the pay packet, it’s understandable that journos get more than a little precious.

    The main cause for whining is that the ‘versus’ notion was even aired in the first place – by more than a few people with personal agendas who should have known better. Although it is both stupid and pointless, it feeds directly into the insecurity issues of many journos.

    Another note is that one reason why you may not be ‘hearing’ so much about journos working with social media is that they tend to be very observant folks – and observation of the sector will show you that it is a very fluid medium and not one to bank on any single given technology.

    I think you will find many journos supportive of social media as a whole (if governed by the rules they find amendable and not just a cavalcade of lolcatz) but unwilling to champion any given technology.

    This caution tends to belay the passion seen in advocates of social media – OMG YOU MUST TWITTER EVERYTHING IN CAPS IT WILL CHANGE THE WORLD.

    Sure, maybe it will. But all indications are that it might not have *quite* the impact its advocates make out – because of the last ten technologies they raved about, 8 of them went quietly to silicon hell after a year or so.

    As a whole, journos tend to study the horses, their dietary plans, exercise regimes and the criminal records of their owners before placing bets. And when it comes to their day job, even more so.

    So you might need to wait and see if these technologies are ‘winners’ before you see journos taking them on with gusto. Of course, that opens a whole new argument for the increasing speed of technological progression impacting on their effectiveness.

    @Stil – I understand you do mean well and hoped to open dialogue that would close off the debate and move onto practical discussion. I think your problem is that the title, and the first paragraph, can both be taken more than one way very easily – and it’s not rocket science that journos would initially take it the wrong way. Maybe edit the title to ‘Media 140 – How I learned that journos are the smartest people in the world and I want to be just like them’?

  11. @dave: Can we even talk of one specific state of mind for either journalists or bloggers? They’re pretty broad churches! And, indeed, are they even really disjoint sets?

    Journalism covers everything from Four Corners doing an investigative report to a sports reporter giving the scores and commentary to a Today Tonight reporter banging on about another “miracle fat cure” to Media Watch‘s Jonathan Holmes ripping them all apart. But the one thing they all have in common is building The Story, which is then delivered. End of story. So to speak.

    Blogging covers everything from “I feel sick today and my cat threw up” to serious commentary about international arms reduction and Antony Green’s electoral analysis. But at its best, it’s where a post triggers a discussion in the comments — like we’re having right now.

    The argumentative folks on both “sides” of the debate seem to thing only one or the other can exist. I reckon both can, and both do, and both can be practiced by the same person or organizations at different times.

    I think it’s also more about the process rather than specific technologies. Twitter, as a specific tool or even a company, may or may not survive. But the concept of the rapid sharing of information in short bursts through overlapping groups of people is most definitely here to stay.

    As for the poor journalists, well, I can appreciate the defensiveness. After all, the rest of society ranks them down there with politicians and used car salesmen, just a notch above pedophile. Erk.

  12. oh, you DIDN’T!

    The crap nature of poor journos would make a great Today Tonight feature, don’t you think?

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