Research versus Processing

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.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • In his lead essay, Clay Shirky argues that the old models of journalism are broken primarily because in today’s online environment, self-created publics can parse the news however they like. The biggest failure of journalism in the online age is the failure to reproduce the front page — the news that everyone saw together and first. Today, individuals who want specialized or even personalized news can get it instantly. Readership has become impossible to control.

    In this massive upheaval, one thing that may be at risk is the provision of “serious” journalism — news stories about the city council, or about events on the other side of the globe. These stories aren’t being subsidized anymore, as they had been in the past, by getting bundled in with coupons and stories about sports. To provide serious journalism, new forms of patronage may be necessary, and Shirky’s essay concludes with a brief look at some models that may work. Yet no upheaval of this magnitude is really predictable, and the future will probably surprise us all.

Response Essays

  • In his response essay, Philip Meyer argues that while newspapers may be in financial trouble, journalism is on the move. In particular, citizen journalism, done by individuals who may have other careers or life paths outside of full-time journalism, is a key trend for the future. Certification for these journalists — whether through reputation metrics or through a formal certification process — will become increasingly important. Evidence-based journalism, specialty niche journalism, and journalism done through philanthropic foundations are some of the other key trends that are accompanying the decline of the generalist newspapers that dominated the twentieth century. Evidence-based journalism is more open to ordinary citizens, who may not have the contacts of traditional newspaper reporters. Niche journalism had a hard time finding an outlet in the old days. And, although the prospect may be unsettling, philanthropy is increasingly an important source of funding for these projects.

  • Paul Starr agrees with much of Clay Shirky’s lead essay, but he is not optimistic about the power of the public to self-organize. He argues that law, politics, and the unequal fortunes of people in society will all influence the process, and that this means that if we want responsible public-service journalism, we will likely have to subsidize it in a viewpoint- and platform-neutral manner, perhaps with tax exemptions.

  • Steve Yelvington argues that much of the hype about the death of the newspaper business is simply the product of journalistic myopia, in two different forms: First, the news business as a whole made a series of bad business decisions that left it ill-prepared for the information age. And second, the effects of these decisions are all too apparent to reporters, who see them up close in their professional lives. Yet let’s be skeptical of the claim that the newspaper is dying, he says: We are in the middle of a very serious recession, and many other industries are also suffering. No one, however, suggests that we will stop banking, say, or driving cars. Tax breaks, subsidies, bailouts, and laws forbidding hyperlinks to copyrighted content are not only unnecessary — they are harmful, because they will prevent the news industry from developing the new strategies it desperately needs.