Sunday, October 12, 2008

Let the professionals handle it?

Do we still need professional journalists? Or can "citizen journalists" do a better job?

Financial Times editor Lionel Barber, in a column entitled "Why Journalism Wins My Vote," comes down on the side of professionals, while drawing a series of interesting contrasts between the U.S. and British styles of journalism:
In the new world of citizen journalism, the role of the trained journalist as trusted intermediary no longer holds. Some may argue that this privileged status was always precarious, even a fiction. Perhaps there is no such thing as a neutral filter or objective truth, and (print) journalists were imposters to suggest as much.

Yet to abandon the quest to write the first draft of history carries risks. There will always be powerful forces seeking to suppress injustice or inconvenient truths. For all their failings, newspapers, especially the well-financed family-owned newspapers, have served as a counterweight. On both sides of the Atlantic, the line between news reporting and comment is becoming increasingly blurred. That is something that should give everyone in the profession pause for thought.

Barber also suggests (after opining that "It would be premature to suggest US newspapers are engaged in a last roll of the dice") the kind of opportunity that exists for the American news business to re-invent and re-invigorate itself:

There are plenty of opportunities for growth, starting with a renewed focus on local news; a more sophisticated blend of online and print content; and a more adventurous approach to what readers and viewers want, particularly younger ones.

Unfortunately, American newspaper companies are paying lip service to this formula, but they're not wholeheartedly embracing it. Layoffs and buyouts everywhere ("11,683+") run completely counter to "a renewed focus on local news;" nearly all newspapers still operate on a production cycle aimed at the next printing deadline, rather than "a sophisticated blend of online and print" where online comes first; and for a "more adventurous approach," you need to go to The Huffington Post, not a daily newspaper site.

But we digress. Barber's preference for professional journalism is laid out largely in contrast to bloggers, whom he equates at one point with "citizen journalists." There's probably no clear distinction, really, between the pros, the bloggers, and citizen journalists—on that spectrum you can find professionals who blog, bloggers who report, and even citizens who do a professional job of covering events. I'll revisit that question in the next couple of days with a look specifically at the notion of "citizen journalists" and how they might, or might not, contribute to professional news organizations.

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