Philip Meyer writes, “The second trend is moving journalism from a hunter-gatherer activity to one more focused on processing.”
In the debate over news on the Internet, what professor Meyer calls “processing” is a point of bitter division.
A traditionalist view says there’s no news without a professional reporter to dig it up. This view often regards the “hunter-gatherer” as the true creator of news and “processing” as parasitic.
It goes like this: The hard-working, underpaid reporter uncovers facts, while the lazy, pajama-clad blogger opines. News originates with blood and sweat of beat reporters in the pay of traditional (print) media, while vampiric news aggregators and search engines feed on the results without paying the costs.
It’s striking how this view clashes with Meyer’s identified trend. Is journalism focusing on the right side of the value chain? What are the implications?
It may be true that the greatest value — social and economic — is created by processing facts into tasty packaged goods. This processing might carry many labels, but surely they include analysis, interpretation, commentary, aggregation, and editing. Are these processes naturally the domain of professionals? Or are they likely to include and maybe even be dominated by amateurs, the uncredentialed, the unaffiliated?
I tend to disagree with newsroom traditionalists about a lot of things. But maybe they’re onto something here. Maybe the blogosphere, that big news-processing parasitic engine, is the natural domain of the amateur. In a networked society where anyone can publish, the proof will be in the quality of the work, not in the institutional affiliation of the worker, or any credentials.
The process of analyzing the facts, associating and transforming them into higher-value packages on their way to human understanding, is open to all. If professionals bring special skills to that process, then it should show in their work. If not, they’ll simply lose in the open competition.
The prospect of amateur journalism may be frightening. But when we think about amateurization, we should stop to think about the origin of the word. The Latin root, amator, has to do with love. The amateur performs for the love of the work, without regard to pay. The best journalists I’ve known have been driven by that love. (Certainly no rational person would invest $80,000 to get a Master’s degree from the Medill School in order to qualify for a $40,000 job covering cops and courts for the Springfield Shopper.)
In the century since Walter Williams founded the world’s first journalism school in an effort to bring professional standards to the practice of journalism, much has changed. Among the changes is the consolidation of media under corporate ownership.
It may be that the statistic of 85% of new hires at newspapers having journalism degrees stems more from a filtering process created by corporate human resources departments than from any market forces applied by the newspaper editors who eventually hire them.
And it also may be that this is the high water mark in a professionalization wave that is being reversed by a new Internet-driven force. Whether that reversal is a good thing or not, we’ll discover later this century.