Saturday, December 30th, 2006
I have had this post in my mind for a while, and Andy Dickinson gave me an extra nudge to finally finish it with this post about a student who lost her “print privileges” after working for her newspaper’s website.
One of the journos on my video course left a comment on my cross media post, expressing the frustration she feels in not having online recognised as journalism. She talks about “having been effectively banned from writing and subbing in print, it is easy to feel somewhat castrated as a journalist.”
Why is the industry still doing this to journalists, many whom are the multi-skilled, multi-media digital natives that are essential to the future of journalism? I long ago lost patience with the arrogance of journalists who turn their nose up at the internet as if the medium dictated the quality of information that it presents. I only agree with the McLuhan maxim that ‘the medium is the message’ to a certain extent. There is nothing mystical about the printed word, radio or television that makes the journalism presented via it somehow more valid. Whether it’s a quality broadsheet or a rabid red-top (British tabloid), it’s still paper, folks. Do you ask if paper is a valid form of journalism? Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it?
But I know this old media snobbery all too well from personal experience (fortunately, not recent) and from too many stories like this from bright, ambitious journalists who see the future and aren’t stuck in the past. They still see the internet as some digital trifle, a plaything, not as a forum for serious journalism. I understand the feeling of professional alienation that Andy’s student felt.
I am a big fan of filmmaker Jim Jarmusch and of his films, one of my favourites being the neo-Western Dead Man. Shot beautifully in black and white, the film traces the physical and spiritual journey of a man called William Blake. He comes to the West as the frontier is closing, looking for a new life but instead finding his path to death. His guide on this journey is a Native American who calls himself Nobody. His real name is “Xebeche: He who talks loud, saying nothing”. But he prefers to be called Nobody. Nobody is an outcast because his parents were from two different tribes. “My father was Apsaaloke. My mother was Amskaapi Pikanii. This mixture was not respected.”
I sometimes feel like Nobody. Professionally, I come from two different tribes. I am passionate both about journalism and technology. I am not passionate about technology out of a simple fascination with the new. From the very early days of my career, I have used technology to make my journalism better, to do things that would have been editorially desirable but technically infeasible without this new magic. Technology is, after all, applied knowledge. But the goal has always been better journalism.
There has always been a tension in my career, not internally, but with the industry. As a journalist, I studied to be a print reporter, but I chose to work on the internet because I saw and continue to see exciting opportunities. I have sometimes had to justify my credentials as a journalist to fellow journalists for choosing the internet over newspapers, TV and radio.
Why do I choose the internet? Online journalism is still evolving, and we’re making up new methods of working and work-flows all of the time. I’ve loved the can-do attitude of multi-skilled journalists, designers and programmers that I’ve worked with over the last 10 years. We’re constantly making things up, facing and overcoming new challenges. It’s one of the things that has kept me passionate about online journalism despite the dot.com crash. As my former colleague at the BBC Paul Brannan says, we’re creating a new medium and it’s exciting. But where I’ve worked, both at the BBC and The Guardian, it is still about quality journalism.
The ironic thing is that the industry is alienating exactly the kind of people who will help them transform to meet the changing needs of the market. It is ironic that they are also alienating many parts of their digitally literate audience.
To those of you who ask whether the internet or blogging or podcasting is ‘valid journalism’: We can be passionate about the internet and journalism. We can code HTML, shoot video, record and edit podcasts and write solid prose. Yes, it’s a lot to do, but we feel that the sum will be greater than its parts. We will challenge managers because we don’t fit into your current organisational chart (although your org chart is part of the problem). We are employees ready to do renaissance journalism, and we will do it, if we’re only given a chance.
As for me, I don’t feel the need to justify my journalistic credentials anymore. I can understand journalists whose jobs are under threat feeling defensive about the internet. But a fundamentalist attitude about what is and isn’t valid journalism isn’t going to solve the industry’s problems or save jobs. And telling the digital natives that they have to choose between journalism and technology is a self-defeating move by an industry that needs our talents.