Thursday, April 02, 2009

Pro/Am Collaboration In Reporting: Is It Really Needed?

What follows is a contribution written by Aaron Barlow for a roundtable at the the Southern States Communication Association annual meeting in Norfolk, VA on April 3, 2009:

Collaboration depends on acceptance of certain assumptions, of course, including that both parties bring something of value to the effort. Given that and my title, you might think that I am going to argue against collaboration, saying that the amateur journalist just doesn't bring enough, that he or she isn't needed, even in the contemporary atmosphere of change and expansion in journalism. But I am not claiming that. In fact, I am not going to propose anything about collaboration at all, for I don't know what the best route for the future is, or if collaboration might be part of it. What I do know is that the amateurs, right now, carry the power in interactions with professional journalists; it is they who control the situation. So, instead of arguing that amateurs are the ones in need (though they may well be), I am going to suggest what many bloggers and citizen journalists have already suggested, that it may be that the professional is no longer be needed, that the fears of journalists over the past decade concerning the future of their profession are justified. Collaboration in reporting, as many see it, may merely be a way of keeping on life support a profession that has seen its day. Perhaps we should, as some have suggested, lay it to rest along side carriage-makers, milkmen, and Linotype operators. Starkly put, what may be feared by journalists for their careers may not be something that the general public need find troubling. The reporter running around shouting “The end is near” may be rousing up nothing more than a yawn. And the public may even be right to yawn.

Though journalists like to take it back a century further, in the United States their profession is not even two-hundred years old. It began with the “correspondents” of the 1820s but only became something distinct and recognizably so from the 1840s, with the rise of the penny press, developing on through the Civil War. The “freedom of the press” of the First Amendment does not, in fact, refer to a particular profession. Bracketed by freedoms of speech and assembly, it was meant, like those, as a non-specific political freedom—for newspapers, in those days, were inherently political creatures. That is, they weren't about politics, but were involved in politics. Only later did the idea of the disinterested observer in the press come into being, an idea that, as we know, never really took hold, ballyhoo for “objectivity” notwithstanding.

What do we lose, if we go back to a situation like that of the America before the advent of the journalism profession, one solely of “citizen journalists” reporting the news? Do we lose self policing by trained specialists? It could be argued that journalists have done little of that, and poorly, even embracing into the profession people with no training and no respect for the ethics of journalism... recently even going so far as to leave it to a comedian like Jon Stewart to take the profession to task, as he did with Tucker Carlson on Crossfire soon before the 2006 election, and as he did with Jim Cramer of CNBC just recently. Sure, it can be argued that neither Carlson nor Cramer is “really” a journalist, that they just play one on TV, but most of the profession certainly has accepted them, even embraced them. And it took bloggers to draw attention to Jeff Gannon, who had been attending White House press briefings for a year on day passes before anyone called attention to this male escort posing as a journalist. Members of the press corps, who had been rubbing shoulders with him for months, had either said nothing or were incurious. Not much gatekeeping going on there!

Do we lose the research skills of the professional if we turn to the amateur? The first response might be, “What research skills?” Yes, I. F. Stone spent hours a day sifting data, but he was well outside of the mainstream of professional journalism; few are willing to spend the time and effort delving into something that might turn out not to be much of a story anyway. Rudy Giuliani, on hearing complaints about the closing of the New York City Hall pressroom, responded that the reporters should be out gathering information rather than waiting for someone to bring it to them from his office. And he had a point: too much of modern journalism has been that waiting for someone to give something or for something to happen—and then spinning it for the purposes of impact. Is it any wonder that journalists are seen by the general public as little more than ambulance chasers? Is it any wonder that the play The Front Page has been filmed three times?

It's not the research that thrills many journalists, if we are honest, but the ballyhoo. Walter Burns, in The Front Page remake His Girl Friday, presents the real draw of journalism to a recalcitrant Hildy Johnson: “You've kicked over the whole City Hall like an apple-cart. You've got the Mayor and Hartman backed against a wall. You've put one administration out and another in. This isn't a newspaper story—it's a career!” The question the rest of us outside of the profession have been asking, silently, for the most part, is should this be a career. We're not convinced.

When access to information was limited, when only a few could view an event live, perhaps it was important that there be designated professionals to bring news to the rest of us. By the 1990s, however, many had come to see the transporters of information as a filter as well, and were starting to feel more than a little discomfort with the quality of the information delivered—a feeling that, in part, led to things like the first attempts to bring about collaborations between journalists and their public. A few journalists, having seen what was happening, attempted to bridge the gap that was growing between themselves and their audiences, to break across the custodial moat that had been dug around the news.

These attempts failed, through no fault of the journalists involved, but because the journalism business quickly found itself facing challenges whose nature could not have been imagined at the beginning of the decade, challenges growing from technologies that were suddenly providing information and making it available to everyone at an astonishing pace, challenges that diverted attention from just about every prior attempt by journalists to bridge the gap between journalist and public. Suddenly, the directional force was reversed: it was the public swimming through that moat, the shaky rope bridges earlier thrown over the gulf by journalists ignored as people sped through the water using technological devices that, they had recently discovered, were theirs for the asking.

For journalists, a tactical retreat (at least) was necessary. They couldn't control what was happening at the edge so backed up, some of them digging in to fight, others (realizing the futility of the battle) trying to find paths to a truce, some way of merging forces, of convincing these people who have invaded their territory not to wipe them out completely. To convince them that, yes, the journalists still do have a role to play.

Unfortunately, when people start whining that they are still relevant, they generally aren't.

But it's too easy to make the case for the irrelevancy of journalism these days, to say that collaboration is nothing more than a way to preserve a few careers while an entirely new and non-professional paradigm for journalism emerges. To do so would be to ignore the realities of our society and our economy, both of which are money driven, and both of which cherish professionalism. We can see this today: the blogs are providing a springboard to professionalism in journalism and financial reward, not to concerted and sustained amateur effort. Even young and well-trained journalists, those who have not yet broken into the field, are recognizing that it is through blogging and “citizen journalism” that they can make their marks. Energetic and confident, neither they nor the amateurs now on their way to professional status will ever be satisfied with a collaboration where they don't have either free rein or equal status with the older professionals.

In other words, they have little reason to want to collaborate.

There needs to be a reason for collaboration, not simply a desire—and certainly not simply a desire to protect jobs and careers. In the 1990s, when civic or public journalism was first broached, it was ignored or sloughed off by many journalists, by people who saw no need to share the professional responsibilities they felt they were upholding. Why should they have done otherwise? Few people worthy of note were criticizing the news media—and those who were could easily be ignored. The signs of incipient failure were there, of course—declining revenues and readership, listenership, and viewership—but there was nothing yet actively invading the world of journalism. The moat, deep and wide and serene, seemed uncrossable.

That has changed, of course, and now it is the amateurs and those trying to break into the field who have the upper hand. But they aren't approaching the professionals for collaborative projects, not very often. It is the professionals, for the most part, who are doing the approaching, hoping to be noticed, hoping to make a positive contribution in this new world.

But what are the professionals offering, in their moves towards collaboration, that the so-called amateurs really want? The professionals know—or think they know—what they amateurs need (writing, editing, and research skills, and understanding of the legal and ethical considerations important to journalism, etc.), but have they really considered what the invaders want? That's the question, probably the most important a journalist can be asking about the field today.

If professional journalism is to survive—and I do think it will—it has to start seeing itself comprised not of leaders but of followers, acting as the caterers and not as the hosts. Only then will collaboration really begin to work, with the “people” in control and the journalists in a service role. Few journalists are going to like this, but I do believe that collaboration, with the journalist the junior partner, may just be the key to the survival of the profession. What that will look like, I don't know—but I am sure that the possibility is one that today's decision-makers in the profession need to face squarely, even though doing so may bruise their egos. If not, the profession may, in fact, become nothing more than a curiosity for historians.

Thank you.

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