March 18, 2010

Journalism has always been communal

I caught Bora’s post about the changing definition of journalism the other day and followed the subsequent bits of conversation from Twitter between Bora, Ed and David. It’s semantics, mostly, but it does raise an interesting question about the line between professional and amateur, something which I think is worth hashing out, and eventually will tie in with this insecure business of self-analysis and self-definition.

Back in January of 2008, I said, in a post called Defining Bloggers by Medium:

Bloggers have the unfortunate tendency to define themselves solely by their medium, as if considering themselves "writers" would take away their net cred or even worse, in the case of science bloggers, place them in a category with science journalists.

Blogging can be a journalistic augment if it’s purposed to be, a more personal element in a larger sphere of information exchange. But I think we need to consider that the movement from formulaic, “dry” news stories to feature writing is not a new thing; blogging, in a sense, is another step in the push to integrate stylistic perspective and subjectivity into journalism that really took off in the twentieth century. The voice of the author has become more prominent in general for better or worse, but that has been going on for decades.

I don’t think place has been emphasized enough in this discussion as a defining characteristic of journalism (at least from the links I’ve followed, perhaps I’m wrong). The sense that the journalist is “reporting from” somewhere and with someone is, I believe, an integral, imperative element to any feature piece. It’s important to the story to talk to people close to the subject, studying the effects, people that know where to go so the writer can see with her own eyes exactly what she's supposed to be writing.

People aren’t just a source. They aren’t middle-men. They’re characters in the story of the topic. They’re participants; they’re tangible and accessible for the reader. You can’t sit down with data and glean perspective. People are the story. A skilled journalist can use these voices to tell the narrative, in the absence of her own, opening a window into someone else's world. This doesn’t mean that access to raw data isn’t important; it means that the idea that people are an extra step or analogous to books or other repositories of information is skewed at best.

It sounds nice to say that due to these technological advances, we can all be artists/writers/musicians, but it’s misleading. I can spend the next ten years painting every day, but if what I paint is demonstrably poor quality in reference to the accepted standard, I’m not an artist, I’m dabbling. There’s an affirmation that is necessary from the established community, through an "in" critical evaluation or a paycheck, usually, that gives you ground to now call yourself a professional. It’s an important distinction. Let’s not pretend there’s no gradient of low to high quality reporting and expect to be able to strip out the essential elements of a professional venture and still call it by the same name. Are there writers blogging out there that should be compensated for the work they put into their blogs? Of course. But I can understand professional journalists bristling a bit when there’s an obvious lack of leg work and writing skill in blog posts purported to be equitably journalistic.

I empathize with the impulse to gatecrash, to criticize the establishment, to question the foundations of an industry, but the editorial process in professional writing is still important. The succession of editorial filters tailors and hones the content through a layered process before it’s released. We birth blog posts without an editor. It’s a part of the flavor, unadulterated you, but there’s a profound psychological value in pre-release criticism that you don’t get in blogging; a few markups and wise words from an editor can nurture the piece, opening new linguistic, philosophical or rhetorical doors you hadn’t considered before. It’s not just about catching errors before publishing; it's about using all available resources to produce a complete, well-researched, true to life narrative, a story. Journalism, and all professional writing for that matter, has always been a communal effort in this sense. Writers don’t thrive in a vacuum and never have.

The internet is a blank space. We fill it with ourselves. Blogs are HTML notebooks, they have no inherent purpose. Some of the writing done on blogs can be considered journalistic. Most isn’t, and there are few examples of true excellence. There’s established criteria for judging writing of different sorts. No one has to respect the criteria, but that certainly doesn’t make it go away.

The recent pluralistic acceptance of "blurry lines" is fine as long as they don't get too blurry. Training, work, quality and adherence to standards (not always in letter) has always been a pretty clear line between amateurs and professionals in any field.

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