Randolph T. Holhut: 'Journalism should not be an exclusive club'
Thursday, March 24 @ 09:54:32 EST
By Randolph T. Holhut
DUMMERSTON, Vt. - Who is a journalist?
That is the central question in the weblogs versus journalism debate.
Journalism likes to think of itself as a profession. But the key elements of professions such as medicine or law - an accepted course of study and apprenticeship, certification for practitioners, discipline for those stray from the ethical and professional standards of the field - don't exist in journalism. Not to mention that the pay in the lower rungs of journalism is only slightly better than fast food restaurants.
The beauty of journalism is that anyone can be one. You don't have to take a exam to get your journalist license, because there is no licensing. There is no state Board of Journalism to certify practitioners and decertify those who stray. If you can write honestly, have a curiosity about the world around you and can keep your facts straight, you can be a journalist.
Over the years, I've worked with reporters who never went to college who were naturals when it came to journalism. And I've worked with reporters with journalism school degrees who couldn't write their way out of a wet paper bag.
The field is broad and accommodating, and that's what makes the tut-tutting of the corporate media about blogs disingenuous. As someone with a foot in both worlds - traditional and new media - I see it both ways.
As a newspaper editor, I know all too well that the corporate press is unable to adapt to the reality that people now have a multitude of information sources to choose from. As a columnist who has had more freedom to write online than in print and has taken full advantage of that for the past decade, I see the Internet as the greatest thing that has happened to news since Gutenberg.
News is no longer a monolithic thing, determined by a handful of editors and producers in Washington and New York. Technological advances have collapsed time and distance in favor of immediacy and interactivity, creating a new kind of journalism. Not many people can afford to buy their own printing press or a 50,000-watt transmitter. Internet bandwidth is considerably cheaper and allows anyone with the time and inclination to do so to be a journalist.
As with anything, the cream rises to the top. The best blogs and news sites aren't run by biased one-note ranters. They are run by intelligent, knowledgeable people who recognize the essential credo of the Internet - information wants to be free - and believe in the transformational power of an interactive medium that has no central control, few barriers and even fewer rules; something that is the antithesis of the corporate pattern of control and domination.
As a result, news consumers no longer have to settle for a universal one-size-fits-most journalism. Digital journalism has brought back the pre-TV era of journalism, when virtually every city had competing newspapers tailored to different readers and points of view.
The walls that had stood for years around ideas, information and intellectual property have been smashed by the Internet, mainly due to the way it was designed more than 35 years ago. The Internet is decentralized, with multiple points of entry. Geography is irrelevant, as is identity. Trying to censor or control the Internet is nearly impossible. It remains a place where freedom of speech and innovation are the forces that drive it forward.
Rather than joining the chorus that blogs and online journalism mean the death of traditional news, I firmly believe in the idea that as corporate media gets more cautious and more obsessed with profits, status and power, there is a greater need for alternatives. I also believe that a generation that has come to expect interactivity in their media will demand nothing less from their news.
For me, the Internet has become my primary source of news. I am a great fan of news sites such as Common Dreams, Cursor, AlterNet, the Progressive Review, Truthout, Working for Change and The Smirking Chimp. Blogs such as Daily Kos, Talking Points Memo, Altercation, Atrios and Romensko are also daily reads for me. Taken together, I believe I am getting the cream of the English language press, filled with links to primary sources and documents, as well as informed comment about the news. It's a combination that cannot be duplicated in any other medium.
These sites have one thing in common besides their left-of-center politics. They are all woefully underfunded (except Romensko, the news business gossip site subsidized by The Poynter Institute, and Eric Alterman's Altercation, which is under the MSNBC umbrella). The rest have to pass the hat frequently to make ends meet because they aren't corporately controlled and funded. For nearly every blogger, getting information out is the goal and if the costs of operation can be covered, they're happy. Information may want to be free, but writers still want to get paid.
The other thing they have in common is that they are, for the most part, run by academics and journalists; intelligent people who have something to say and are taking advantage of the low cost, high penetration news model that the Internet has provided. They have no corporate masters looking over their shoulders. Instead, they have their readers.
The one thing I've noticed in nearly 10 years of online writing is that whatever you write, you can expect to have it dissected and analyzed by your readers, who will let you know immediately if you are wrong or off point.
This is called open-source journalism, and it scares the hell out of most news editors and producers. They're used to telling you what the news is and you passively accepting it. Most aren't ready to allow news consumers to add their ideas and information to the reporting process.
But this is the direction that journalism should be heading. The story that appears in the newspaper or the Six O'clock News used to be the end of the process. Now, it's only the beginning. True interactivity means that report can be amplified, modified or extended through the knowledge of people who know as much or more about a topic as the journalists. Reporters shouldn't be afraid of this, because this means they now have more information on a topic than they might of had just relying on their own devises.
This model demands more from reporters. They have to get used to having their work regularly challenged. But it also demands more from news consumers. They have to work harder at being informed and educated rather than being passive observers. Most people don't want to be bothered. For those who do, they now have a chance to have more of a say in the news process than ever before.
Anyone can be a journalist. That's what the First Amendment assures us. And the Internet is the tool that can give the average person the means to do so. While most of the Blogosphere is a cacophony of voices competing for attention, if you have something intelligent to say, you have a better chance to be heard online than in any other medium.
The people aren't always right, but they aren't always wrong, either. Interactivity keeps reporters and editors honest. It builds trust, and when news consumers trust you, they'll keep coming back for more.
Randolph T. Holhut has been a journalist in New England for more than 20 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at email@example.com