Saturday, December 5, 2009

Journalism With the Big J

I think Roger Plothow doth protest too much in his Nov. 15 piece (yes, I'm late, but that's beside the point) on citizen journalists versus Journalists with a capital J.

"The idea," he writes, "that anyone with a cell phone or note pad can practice journalism is nearly as offensive to a journalist as the idea that some quack with leeches can practice medicine is to a physician."

Sounds like he's forgotten that leeches are used in modern medicine, and not by quacks, but by practicing physicians. Second of all, equating Journalism with the big J to newspapers and citizen journalism with the small j to the web flies in the face of what I, as a former journalist, have experienced in Journalism. Including Journalism practiced at Plothow's paper.

First, a disclaimer: I left the paper in April of 2005 really burned out on journalism. Plothow called me lazy behind my back. I'm fine with that. Burnout may look like laziness to the one not experiencing it. I'm also ecstatic that I'm no longer in Journalism with a big J.

From what I've seen, Journalism is not the bastion of well-trained reporters or editors who have a lock on balance, integrity, logic or reason. Journalism with a big J, as with any other career, tends to attract all kinds. There are many Journalists who are brilliant. There are many who are hacks. Most of them fall in the middle somwhere, and they manage to muddle through or find other jobs that better fir their temperament. I'm confident I fit in the latter category, no matter how Plothow might care to categorize me.

The same can be said for bloggers and the "citizen journalists" he derides. There are many out there who are doing brilliant reporting and editing, no matter what the critics say. They may be outshouted by the opinionators and bloviators, but that is due more to the democratic freedom of the Internet in which everyone, for pennies or even for free, can participate in any kind of discussion whether they have a cell phone and notepad or any other kinds of mundane journalistic tools. That one possesses a printing press or a broadcast tower or an FCC license doesn't make one any better a journalist than one who does not. He criticizes the web for not being able to pay for "quality journalism," whatever that means, even as the mainstream media struggle to find out ways to make what they do pay -- and this is a problem that's existed long before the Internet was around. Free Press may want solutions that treat newsgathering and reporting as a public service rather than as a commodity, but even public service has to be paid for. You'd think an industry struggling for survival would embrace a medium that cuts its production and distribution costs. Plothow's paper is one of the few in the nation that charge for online content, so at least they've got that right. It just appears they don't have the guts to go the whole way. Why should advertisers fear an online medium that reaches the same amount of eyeballs as the dead tree edition?

Because it doesn't. Because for too long newspapers gave away everything for free on the Internet. Local TV stations still do. And now citizen jouranlists are getting interested in the mix, contributing not because they want to get paid, but because they have an interest in the happenings in their neighborhoods and cities and states and nations and want to tell people about them. No, they're not schooled in Journalism with a big J. But they have the passion that any editor worth his salt would love to see in a paid staffer in any newsroom. Rather than deriding citizen journalists as imbalanced and partial and uneducated, you'd think newspapers would be willing to offer their expertise to these citizen journalists and bring them in as contributors, or at least offer some kind of cross-linking service, in order to attract those Internet eyeballs and maybe convince readers that the professionals really do want to engage with its readers other than through letters to the editor or a few phone calls or a canceled subscription.

Deserved or not, bloggers and citizen journalists have the reputation of being inaccurate, biased, ignorant and just plain stupid. Maybe professionals could teach them a few things about balance, ethics, and Journalism with a big J.

Deserved or not, professional media have the reputation of being standoffish, inaccurate, biased, ignorant and just plain stupid. Maybe citizen journalists could teach them a few things about better connecting with Internet readers, and plain making sense to the people who read what they write.

And besides, do newspapers offer up things like this:

I love nonsequitur. It's so much fun.

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