Nov 6, 2009

Journalism – a defence

It's easy to take the piss out of journalists, and to blame the media for everything. Journalists often over-estimate how much they know, and exaggerate their own importance. But

It’s easy to take the piss out of journalists, and to blame the media for everything.

Journalists often over-estimate how much they know, and exaggerate their own importance.

But they’re not alone in having those shortcomings.

Where you sit is where you stand.

And people in different sectors of our complex democracy are quick to identify and lampoon the failings of everyone else.

Journalists ridicule academics for being long-winded (and dull), academics ridicule the superficialities of journalistic analysis.

Public servants sometimes think everyone in business is a spiv of one sort or another, while in the private sector bureaucrats are seen as rule-loving tossers.

These warring groups are not always wide of the mark in their depictions of each other.

More recently, we have had another cleavage thrust upon us: bloggers versus journalists.

I was cheered by Stilgherrian’s first few paragraphs in his paper to the media 140 conference. And this sentence, in particular:

This is why I think the whole bloggers versus journalists debate was and still is so incredibly stupid.

But what follows, unfortunately, is a jaunty run through the whole ‘social media good, journalism bad’ story that has long since become a cliche.

A few more pars into this tour through the well-worn world of blogger resentment, we get this stunner of a summation:

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”.

Oh dear.

Now I know Stig is trying to be entertaining and provocative so a certain amount of latitude is warranted.

But this sort of glibness doesn’t do anyone any good.

On the other hand, reading further I realised that this ‘critique of western civilisation in a nutshell’ really is the key to understanding the perspective of Stig and countless other social media romantics.

Folks, there is not such thing as truth. That was all a pre-digital idea. Now utterly redundant.

Once you get over silly obsessions like trying to work out what the truth is then you are free in Stig’s grand vision for our future to convey gossip along ant-like trails.

I’m not making this up.

At the end, in his paper’s coup de grace against the pretensions of journalists, Stig draws on a recent weather event to portray the redundancy of journalism:

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?

Well there you go. No need for investigation, fact-checking, objective standards of accuracy, background, context. Not to mention a trained editorial hand to bring you the best writing and pictures.

I think we need more journalists.

I think more bloggers (and god forbid twitterers) should be embracing the skills of journalism.

I vote for excellence.

And truth.

I don’t want the ‘global mind hive’.

It sounds ugly and dystopian to me.

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13 thoughts on “Journalism – a defence

  1. RICK68

    Rupert Murdoch sold his Aussie citizenship for American Monoply. Regards Richard Ryan.

  2. RICK68

    Rubert Murdoch, Monopoly is a terrible thing till you have it.

  3. [email protected]

    Trevor, as one who was there rather than as you admit, judging the Twitter feed and some of the published speeches from afar, I can assure you the tone of the entire Media140 conference was quite the opposite to what you have mistakenly assumed. The “us” and “them” attitude was rife, along with a disappointing tone of journalism superiority that detracted from the value attendance.

    There was no dissing of journalists, but plenty of derogatory inferences towards bloggers and blogs, and a general tone of superiority from the paid journalists (vs citizen journalists and bloggers). Judging by the questions from the paying audience, a great deal of those were freelancers and bloggers rather than salaried journalists.

    The conference was supposed to explore the value of social media to journalism. Instead, the conversation seemed to centre around the need for pay walls to protect the excellence of journalism from the blight of blogging.

    I have been a journalist and editor, and am now freelance writer and shock-horror, a blogger. I was stunned at the sometimes vehement anti-blogger and social media discourse in both prepared speeches and Q and A sessions. Rather than exploring value, they were deriding those leveraging it.

    Some of the best blogs to which I subscribe are written by journalists. Some aren’t. Some are written by practitioners of great esteem, knowledge (of their subject) and wit that make them a great deal more enjoyable a read than that which I buy in the newspapers and magazines. One does not have to be a trained journalist to be a good writer. In fact, as many editors will tell you, some of the worst writing we have the misfortune to read is of the hands of journalists.

    Stilgherrian is one of the few speakers who used examples to show the value of social media beyond Twitter and how in fact journalists are benefiting from it – the dust storm stands as reasonable testament to that. Those slide shows of amateur images are enormous drawcards for visitors to news sites – this is a near direct quote from a conversation I had on Twitter with an editor of a digital news site.

    Putting aside spruiking their stories through Twitter and talking amongst themselves, journalists use social media for news tips, research, obtaining citizen journalist submissions of photographic material and video footage, crowd sourcing of ideas, poll-taking, building a following and engaging with their readers. It also drives readers of blogs to key news sites where news articles are cited in blog posts. I know this from analysis of which links are clicked through from my own blog, and I am sure The Guardian UK could attest to the numbers hitting its website in the wake of the Trafigura story as it roared through Twitter.

    The argument from certain speakers at Media140 was that social media is a parasite on professional journalists and expensive newsrooms, freely taking their superior product and disseminating it on (snort) blogs. “They must pay!” was the overall message.

    But it is not a competition between social media/bloggers/citizen journalists and “professional journalism”. It is a symbiotic relationship that the industry is at serious risk of destroying to its detriment.

    For an industry intent in building pay-walls around its so-called excellence, it will have to be very clear as to what constitutes excellence and value to its readers – who are in more cases than not, its social media sources, and exploiters.

    In case you haven’t worked it out – social media gives a great deal more to journalism than it takes away. It does so for free and without credit.

  4. Gary Sauer-Thompson

    your comment “But I heard few references to the championing of excellence of great blogging (and not blogging about blogging either)” is true.

    But this was a conference about journo’s using twitter and how it impacted on their practice. Good blogging never really got a guernsey because twitter is how journos–including the Canberra Press gallery engaged with social media. The focus was on journos, not bloggers, and the journos did dump on the new media crowd, including bloggers by implication. Hence the fightback by Papwworth and Stilgherrian.

    A certain Mr Jonathan Green was no friend of the social media, as he defended traditional journalist values, even when Crikey continually transgresses these standards in its daily practice. He came across as a media conservative without even bothering to consider whether the content buried in objective standards of accuracy, background, context etc needed rethinking.

  5. Trevor Cook

    Oh c’mon Gary – the whole tone of Media 140 – to judge from the twitter feed and some of the published speeches I’ve read – seems to be an exercising (yet again) in hectoring journalists, dissing journalists, the resentment oozes from every pore of some people while they prattle on about audiences (formerly known as and the rest of it) and global mind hives blah blah. But I heard few references to the championing of excellence of great blogging (and not blogging about blogging either).

    Crikey makes a lot of its money from its subscriber email – and that’s edited by Mr Jonathan Green.

  6. Gary Sauer-Thompson

    which Australian bloggers are arguing against excellence–defined by you in terms of investigation, fact-checking, objective standards of accuracy, background, context— when they write their commentary on the events of the day?

    Come clean. Does Crikey provide the fine editorship on Corporate Engagement or do you do it yourself, like other Oz political bloggers.

  7. Trevor Cook

    Jeff – excellence in the new environment is the same as excellence in the old environment – only the technology is different – analysis, rigor, insight – they have not changed

    BTW – why do people subscribe to Crikey – I suggest it’s because they like what they read and they believe they are getting something (including fine editorship) that they can’t get for free elsewhere – am I wrong?

    Stilgherrian – Yes I hate listening to journos moan too but it is because there is very little on offer when it comes to funding journalism (as in something you get paid to do for a living) other than in traditional media. Might be one reason why the ABC is the darling of social media types – the ABC can actually fund this stuff. Unless someone comes up with a decent alternative business model (and I don’t mean relying on clickthroughs on google ads either) then journalism is dead as a profession and I think that is not a good thing all things considered. I’m sure journos would be keener to adapt if there was some more hope that adaptation wasn’t just an euphemism for extinction

  8. Gary Sauer-Thompson

    you neglected to mention the example of the recent “Sydney” dust storm mentioned by Stilgherrian in his talk. The point was that most of the content was generated by the audience with their cameras, mobile phones etc. He then asked what did the journalists contribute? They mostly ribbed off the user generated content and hosted slide shows of images.

    Why should I pay for that “excellence” when the good work was on a Flickr gallery? Many of the user generated images were excellent enough to be hosted by News Ltd.

    The ground has shifted away from the old media v the new media.

  9. glengyron

    You take one portion of what Stilgherrian said (who I’ve heard called ‘Stil’, but not Stig) out of context.

    He began his talk by exploding the dichotomy of blogger versus journalist:

    “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!

    In other words they’re not two distinct groups fighting over the same resource. What makes a good blog, makes for a good new story too. Social media is a technology which lets you gather and ‘filter’ information to make new and different stories.

    The dust example was ideal because it showed how users could work collectively to form a picture of an event in a way that no single new source, no matter how well qualified, could. The cathedral and the bazaar….

  10. Stilgherrian

    @Trevor Cook: My point is that any product or service has to survive in the marketplace, and the marketplace is changing. How is the service of journalism adapting, whether that service is an individual journalist selling his or her skills for employment, or a newsroom building an audience for sale to advertisers?

    “We are excellent and people will therefore pay” may or may not be true. Do journalists and journalism as a trade really want to just assume they will? Or will we start to see more of a discussion from individual practitioners about how they’re going to adapt?

    Yesterday’s session, “How Social Media is Changing Political Reporting”, didn’t actually provide any insight into how the craft is changing. It was just a long moan about how terrible is that established news outlets are declining and people fearing for their jobs — which is a valid enough fear but I’m not seeing the problem being addressed.

  11. Jeff Waugh

    But he hasn’t said that either… perhaps rephrasing it with particular words you’ve chosen might make it clearer: What will journalistic excellence be in this new environment?

  12. Trevor Cook

    So your point is that people won’t pay for excellence?

  13. Stilgherrian

    Actually, Trevor, I think there are very real roles for journalists and journalism. The final sentence of my piece as written — I’m not sure if my ad lib presentation was worded exactly the same — was:

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

    I had hoped that in the subsequent discussion the valid answers would emerge — including issues of accuracy, verification and what have you. Alas, there was no time for discussion. That’s a shame, because I don’t actually think journalism is dead or anything even remotely like that. However I do think that the familiar structures of industrial age media factories will morph into something else — perhaps with catastrophic results for some existing organisations.

    I never actually said there’s no such thing as The Truth — you’ve just verballed me. What I did say, or at least meant, was that the idea The Truth as being something that comes solely from institutions is wrong.

    I think I have a valid question. How does this paid-for job called “journalist” change when it exists in this new environment, where people are actually sharing information directly in ways which weren’t possible before? What is this new form of journalism going to look like? That’s my question.

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