Summer 2010 | Online Exclusives

There’s More to Being a Journalist Than Hitting the ‘Publish’ Button

For better or worse, the Internet is ‘biased to the amateur and to the immediate.’

By Douglas Rushkoff
First they came for the musicians, and I did not speak out—because I am not a musician. Then they came for the filmmakers, and I did not speak out—because I am not a filmmaker. Then they came for the journalists, and there was no one left to speak out for us.
Rushkoff's latest book "Program or Be Programmed" is scheduled for release in November by OR Books.
In a media universe that for so many decades, even centuries, seemed stacked against the amateur, the Internet has made a revolutionary impact. Previously, the only law of physics that seemed to apply to the top-down, corporate-driven media space was that of gravity. King George II, William Randolph Hearst, or even Rupert Murdoch would decide what the public should believe and then print that version of reality. And inventions from the printing press to radio, which once seemed to be returning media to the people’s hands, were quickly monopolized by the powers that be. Renaissance kings burned unauthorized printing shops, and the Federal Communications Commission tilted the radio spectrum to corporate control. Our mainstream media seemed permanently biased toward those in power as well as toward whatever version of history they wished to record for posterity.

But at least at first glance the Internet seems to be different. It is a biased medium, to be sure, but biased to the amateur and to the immediate—as if to change some essential balance of power. Indeed, the Web so overwhelmingly tilts toward the immediate as to render notions of historicity and permanence obsolete. Even Google is rapidly converting to live search—a little list of not the most significant, but the most recent results for any query term. Likewise, our blog posts and tweets are increasingly biased not just toward brevity but immediacy—a constant flow, as if it is just humanity expressing itself.

And this notion of writing and thoughts just pouring out of us is also the premise for the new amateur journalism. It is nonprofessional in both intent and content—as close to what its writers believe is an unfiltered, pure gestalt of observation and self-expression. As if the time taken to actually reflect or consider is itself a drawback—or at the very least a disadvantage to whoever wants to be credited with starting a Twitter thread (as if anyone keeps track). Of course writing—whether considered or not—is most definitely never a direct feed from the heart or soul but rather the use of an abstract symbol system, highly processed by the brain and no more gestalt than solving a math equation.

The real difference between the Net and traditional writing is the barrier to entry. Before computers, journalists had to use typewriters—with no cut/copy/paste functionality. Typewritten articles and manuscripts couldn’t be corrected—they had to be rewritten from scratch. Almost no one enjoyed this process, which actively discouraged all but the truly dedicated from attempting to write professionally. Now not only is writing much easier, but distribution is automatic. Writing something in an online environment means being distributed from the moment one hits “publish.” It’s not a matter of how many people actually read the piece; it’s a matter of how many could.

Which gets to the heart of the misconception leading to the demise of professional journalism: People believe their blog posts and tweets may as well be interchangeable with those of the professional journalists with whom they are now competing for attention. Dozens of times now I have fielded these same questions after my lectures—What makes some newspaper columnist’s writing any more important than their blog? With cameras and keyboards in phones these days, why do we even need reporters? Won’t someone see and report?

What Makes a Journalist?


What these honest questions don’t take into account is that a professional journalist isn’t just someone who has access to the newswires, or at least it shouldn’t be. A professional newsperson is someone who is not only trained to pursue a story and deconstruct propaganda, but someone who has been paid to spend the time and energy required to do so effectively. Corporations and governments alike spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on their public relations and communications strategies. They hire professionals to tell or, more often, obfuscate their stories. Without a crew of equally qualified—if not equally funded—professionals to analyze and challenge these agencies’ fictions, we are defenseless against them.

And thus, we end up in the same place we were before—only worse, because now we believe we own and control the media that has actually owned and controlled us all along.

First off, our misguided media revolutionaries are mistaking access to the tools for competency with the skills. Just because a kid now enjoys the typing skill and distribution network once exclusive to a professional journalist doesn’t mean he knows how to research, report or write. It’s as if a teenager who has played Guitar Hero got his hands on a real Stratocaster—and thinks he’s ready for an arena show.

Worse than the enthusiastic amateurization of writing and journalism is that the very same kinds of companies are making the same money off this writing—simply by different means. Value is still being extracted from everyone who writes for free—whether it’s me writing this piece or a blogger writing his. It’s simply not being passed down anymore. Google still profits off the ads accompanying every search for this article. Likewise, every “free” video by an amateur requires that amateur to buy a camera, a video-capable laptop, editing software, and a broadband connection through which to upload the completed piece onto Google-owned YouTube, along with certain rights.

Value is still being extracted from the work—it’s just being taken from a different place in the production cycle and not passed down to the writers or journalists themselves. Those of us who do write for a living are told the free labor will garner us exposure necessary to get paid for something else we do—like talks or television. Of course the people hiring us to do those appearances believe they should get us for free as well since they’re publicizing our writing.

Worst of all, those of us still in a position to say something about any of this are labeled elitists or Luddites—as if we are the ones attempting to repress the natural evolution of culture. Rather, it’s the same old spectacle working its magic through a now-decentralized media space. The results—ignorance, anger, and anti-elitism—are the same.

The pen may be a mightier tool than the sword, but not when we’re using it to lobotomize ourselves.

Douglas Rushkoff is the author of 10 books on new media and popular culture, a technology columnist for The Daily Beast, media studies teacher, and documentarian. Earlier this year as a correspondent for the Frontline TV/Web project “Digital Nation,” he explored what it means to be human in a digital world.

17 Comments on There’s More to Being a Journalist Than Hitting the ‘Publish’ Button
Gene Cassidy says:
July 12, 2010 at 1:07pm
In its present state, the internet may be biased to the amateur and the immediate, but it seems the only effort outpacing technology is marketing. "Follow" the furniture store on Twitter, "like" the car brand on Facebook, "Friend" Fox News. And they're just getting started. I empathize with my journalist friends for feeling that something they have done is contributing to their downfall. True or not, it's impossible to feel that that reporters and editors don't somehow shoulder the responsibility. Comments here reflect that. But if print journalists aren't the architects of their own demise - and I believe to a great extent they're not - can they be the builders of a responsibly informed future. None of us are simply corks in the sea, but the impetus for accurate, timely and important information has to be as driven as the Twitter feeds for products. Journalists have long, and seemingly for good reason, avoided being part of the big sell. Well, if that continues to be the attitude, we and they will have to wait for the responsible publisher equivalent to finance good journalism.
Nick Taylor says:
June 25, 2010 at 5:38am
"Deconstruct Propaganda"?

Are you taking the piss? The reason the traditional media need to die, is that that is all we get from them. Propaganda.

Traditional Journalism has sold its soul. Sorry. In the words of Bob Dylan, "I don't believe you".

We don't need journalism, we need fact-checking - or more accurately, we need a fact-checking filter. Sorry, but more often than not, it's the blogosphere that's providing this role - because "journalists" employed by corporations (you know, the professional ones you're talking about) can be guaranteed almost by definition to fail in this respect. Every night I watch the TV news and shout and throw shoes at it because of the distortions and lies.

This idea that journalists need to be... journalists to see through propaganda is utterly insulting - when they're the ones producing it, and we-the-people who can see through it can do nothing about it - except blog.

You (the media) got us into a war, remember?

Sorry, you don't just get away with that.
Adam Minter says:
June 24, 2010 at 10:07pm
Liam -

Can't wait to see your take on my blog at your site. Of course, I'll also look forward to seeing you take apart my work for the mainstream publications that you revere, as well. Find me here:

www.shanghaiscrap.com
Liam_McGonagle says:
June 24, 2010 at 7:33pm
LOL!

Thanks for the reply, Adam. Not just because it was prompt, but because it is a perfect illustration of yet another limitation of blogging culture: Failure of Audience to Read (properly, if at all).

While I could go on at length about the various inadquacies of your interpretation, there is really no need to when we consider one uncontestable fact: "Douglas Rushkoff" is NOT spelled L-I-A-M M-C-G-O-N-A-G-L-E. Read the actual post before you go off running half-cocked, genius.

My most generous interpretation of your hillarious misunderstanding is that, in true internet culture style, you simply did not read carefully. Of course other possibilities exist, and they're not necessarily mutually exclusive:

1. Your reading skills may be quite poor
2. You are willfully misreading my words in a shabby attempt to score content-free rhetorical points.
3. You haven't bothered to take the time to peruse Mr. Rushkoff's site at http://rushkoff.com, which would immediately make clear (to anyone who actually read it, anyhow)that Mr. Rushkoff has a quite progressive, if not downright left, track record.

However, your previous course of misunderstandings gives little reason for me to expect this will convince you of your error. The disenheartening possibility exists that you believe I am in a secret cabal with Rushkoff and Nieman. If you are determined to believe so, there is little I could do to convince you otherwise . . . . Apart, perhaps, from adjusting the settings on your tinfoil hat . . . .

Love and XO's,

Liam

http://thegreatamateurhour.blogspot.com

By the way, please do leave your own blog's address. I've been waiting quite a while for a suitable parody subject.
Adam Minter says:
June 24, 2010 at 5:21pm
Let me get this straight: on the basis of an amusing conversation with a single Chinese woman, you feel comfortable concluding that:

"... the quality of issues analysis, even among well-travelled and highly educated Chinese, will need some improving for a while to come."

Is this an example of the "higher level of training and commitment to objectivity" to which you expect journalists to aspire? Because, quite frankly Mr. Rushkoff, that sounds suspiciously like ignorance translated into small-minded bigotry (and a case of over-confidence on the part of a sheltered academic).

Your insistence on painting all bloggers with the same brush is ignorant and contemptible. There are opinion bloggers; and there are reported bloggers. There are Chinese bloggers; and there are American bloggers. But all of them -every last one - is subject to this statement:

"Very few bloggers indeed even recognize the moral commitment, education or funding wherewithall necessary to achieve even a part of any one of those objectives--although undoubtable a tiny proportion will."

How do you know, sir? Where is your data? Where is the poll? Where is the profile? What's saddest of all is that you are quite upfront about your disinterest in learning anything about the largest blogging community on the planet, with the largest number of reported blogs, despite the fact there are resources which could help you to understand them.

Is the state of scholarship and support at the Nieman Foundation? Is this the best sort of argument that Mr. Rushkoff can offer? Elite know-nothing-ism? Small-minded bigotry? For shame.
Liam_McGonagle says:
June 24, 2010 at 4:07pm
Adam,

I think we're getting a little misdirected here. The point of the article is that quality in journalism needs to be supported by society. That's what makes democracy possible.

That support is currently evaporating within traditional commercial media companies. Although the traditional system was never perfect, it did have some clear advantages. It allowed people to dedicate themselves full-time to providing the public with multi-sourced, timely and fact-checked information about crucial issues. These institutions provided an enforcement mechanism, however imperfect, for a set of stable research and ethical standards that are incomparably preferrable to the uneven standards that are only rarely acknowledged, let alone enforced, in bloggerdom. These institutions provided funding for crucial travel and research necessary to comply with their (stated)standards.

Very few bloggers indeed even recognize the moral commitment, education or funding wherewithall necessary to achieve even a part of any one of those objectives--although undoubtable a tiny proportion will. The world hasn't achieved Nirvana just yet; we aren't quite ripe for Uptopian Anarchy. There is still a role for concepts like "leadership" and "professionalism"--though they do have to be accountable and transparent.

I think it is clear that Mr. Rushkoff's article is more a clarion call to quality in journalism, and an encouragement for society to support it than a blanket condemnation of the very concept of freelance blogging. I don't think any reasonable interpretation of the man's career would be consistent with that type of condemnation. http://rushkoff.com

Thanks for the invite to review the Chinese blogs, but I think I will decline. In part because I have very little Chinese, and in part because I think there are some very urgent and pressing problems domestically, and I have a much more reasonable chance on influencing those debates. (Though I acknowledge that many Chinese issues are not entirely unrelated to those in the U.S.)

Just a final note on my own Chinese experience, though, that I find kind of amusing. In my career I have often worked quite closely and for lengthy periods of time with highly polished and well-educated Chinese persons--some of them from the most priviledged sectors of their society. On one occassion, one such associate, a very sophisticated and perfectly lovely lady, noticed that I was reading some postcards I had received from a cousin living in Ireland. Upon learning that I had many close friends and relatives who are citizens of that country she asked me:

"To which country would you be loyal if Ireland ever invaded the United States?"

Needless to say, my guess is that the quality of issues analysis, even among well-travelled and highly educated Chinese, will need some improving for a while to come.
Adam Minter says:
June 24, 2010 at 3:00pm
Liam - These are journalists we're talking about, not highly skilled nuclear physicists. For most of the profession's sweaty, dirty history, it's been staffed by amateurs and the self-trained, not by the (needlessly) over-educated J-school grads who were responsible for such landmarks in accuracy as the mis-reported run-up to the Second Iraq War (mis-reporting often corrected on better informed, more skeptical blogs). Judith Miller, anyone? Correct me if I'm wrong, but World War II's illustrious battlefield reporters lacked the - ahem - benefit - of a J-school (and, quite often, a collage) education.

I'm all for supporting quality journalism. And quality journalism is happening on a mass level across the internet, as well as in the MSM. Liam - I would strongly encourage you to spend some time on the Chinese internet (there are bridge blogs which translate the content in case you don't have the proper training in Chinese), which daily, hourly, breaks the news that state-run newspapers cannot. The bloggers in China lack the professional, competent example that you seem to think is so necessary for quality journalism - and yet every foreign correspondent in China - some quite highly trained, whatever that means - take their cues and stories from this fetid mess of amateurism that is revolutionizing news gathering and reporting in Asia.

Whenever I hear highly trained professional talking 'barriers to entry' it's a red light to me that somebody is concerned about protecting their paycheck, and not their profession. Fine and good - protect your paycheck. But please, don't couch this desire for self-preservation in ethical terms meant to denigrate those who don't have the establishment credentials necessary to please Nieman Foundation scholars. The train is passing you by, my friend.
Liam_McGonagle says:
June 24, 2010 at 1:00pm
Mr. Minter,

I think you may have gotten distracted with the single analogy of musical entertainment. If that's as far as you've read, you'll have missed the point entirely.

Journalism is a domain of considerably less subjectivity than music. There are complex interrelations of fact and interpretation that demand a much higher level of training and commitment to objectivity than does music.

Not meaning to offend highly trained classical, jazz or even folk musicians, but some even deign to designate formless trainwrecks like "Crunk" as "music". Clearly, as with any other analogy, the music/journalism comparison has its limits. If you read the piece in its entirety I think you'd have to agree.

It'd be great if most bloggers had the required training and commitment, but the barriers to entry being nil, that is not a statistical likelihood. So Mr. Rushkoff's encouragement to his readers to support quality journalism seems quite reasonable to me.

As to your point about important stories being broken by unpaid bloggers, that's true--but only PARTIALLY true. They've also fed and nourished bizarre and phoney boondoggles like the "Al Gore Invented The Internet" and "President Obama's Plan to Embezzle Retirees' 401(k) Savings" stories.

Amateurs can get it right only when they have a high-standard professional template to follow. And frankly, relying on the hit-and-miss quality that bloggerdom generally provides seems like begging for a poorly informed electorate.

http://www.thegreatamateurhour.blogspot.com
Adam Minter says:
June 24, 2010 at 11:21am
This is ignorant and elitist; the comparison with musicianship is daft. I think a more apt comparison would be between classical composers, and popular composers who don't read music. So, for example, Paul McCartney who doesn't read musical notation, who never took a musical theory course in his life, is still capable of writing incredibly complex and compelling melodies that have vast popular appeal. Why? Because he's talented and he has instincts. Burt Bachrach, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Chopin for that matter also enjoy popular appeal, and they've achieved it on the backs of their training AND talent.

Strikes me that Rushkoff is genetically pre-disposed toward according journalistic license to those with training before talent. But, of course, there are thousands of talented journalists doing fantastic work from their 'amateur' platforms. Stories are broken on blogs all of the time - I do it from mine when I don't have the time or inclination to go through the BS necessary to publish with the mainstream publications that pay my bills. It's possible to do both.

I write this partly based upon my work in China - where I'm based for 8 - 10 monthys of the year. There, more than anywhere else in the world, amateur journalists are driving news coverage, leading both Western reporters to stories and- when possible - the government-owned media, as well. Rushkoff really would do well to wake up to this possibility. The tens of millions of Chinese citizen journalists who are making their internet one of the most exciting on Earth would clean his clock.

This essay is ignorant, unimaginative, and lacking in compassion.
Joe says:
June 22, 2010 at 7:22pm
I loved this. I have to applaud mutterhals. I recently broke away from the commercial music business (Rock/Pop etc.) and into classical music. I'm planning to study in Spain, dual-majoring in piano performance and composition. I find the classical world is akin to what mentions about the days of the typewriter and weeds out the hobbyists that fail to actually dedicate themselves to mastering a craft.
Liam McGonagle says:
June 17, 2010 at 1:43pm
Big 'Amen' there to Mr. Rushkoff.

Maybe I'm being a bit pessimistic, but I think the problem is somewhat worse than you may think. If only it were a short-sighted focus on cost containment! No, I think the real problem is cultural more than economic: People just don't recognize Good Writing anymore (if indeed they ever did).

Think about it: Our public discourse accords such a prominent place to the likes of Glenn Beck and Mike Savage that the average Joe virtually HAS to assume they represent a reasonable baseline for most people to measure against, even if it is demonstrably not top-notch. My God, if they actually looked at the stuff critically they'd be in sheer distress at the pitiful shabbiness our intellectual culture has descended! In short, it's really a sort of defense mechanism against the cognitive dissonance implied by our Culture of Mediocrity.

While I recognize my own limitations in this regard (Hell, no one's perfect) I have attempted to do my own little bit to raise standards: A satirical blog awarding the title "Amateur of the Week" for selected individual bloggers pushing mediocrity to the limits.

http://thegreatamateurhour.blogspot.com

Maybe 'Shame' as an emotion does serve an evolutionary purpose.

Rush Dougkoff says:
June 17, 2010 at 12:50pm
I am very dissapointed with this article. I could write pages about it but nobody would read that here in this context. I miss the old Rush.
mutterhals says:
June 17, 2010 at 8:31am
I love this and I love how you tied it to music. We're going to have a whole generation of idiots that think Lil' Wayne can play the guitar.
Kathy says:
June 16, 2010 at 9:52pm
Ooops - I don't know how "Doug" showed up as my name. Moderator - please delete that prior comment!

Hi, Doug:

I provide a counterpoint to your argument using a story from the Tribune's Washington bureau that ran today, along with one from AP. Warning: you probably won't like what I've said. http://wiredpen.com/2010/06/16/obamas-90-percent-clean-up-promise/.

This is my second article in as many days that examines how media are reporting the BP blowout. FWIW, I hold a B.A. in journalism from UGA and teach at the University of Washington.
Jan Gardner says:
June 16, 2010 at 1:55pm
Howard, you might be interested in reading about the News Literacy Project, also in this issue, at http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reportsitem.aspx?id=102409

Esther Wojcicki, a teacher at Palo Alto High School, and her students have some interesting things to say on the subject as well. There are three related articles that you can begin at http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/reportsitem.aspx?id=102407

Jan Gardner
Assistant Editor
Nieman Reports
Steven Zuckerman says:
June 15, 2010 at 8:25am
While we all have typewriter keyboards, having a keyboard does not make everyone a writter (mispelled on purpose.) Thank you for a splendid piece.......

Steven Zuckerman www.next-gen-expo.com
Howard Greenstein says:
June 15, 2010 at 8:11am
Doug,
What can we do to encourage these critical thinking skills, especially to get them taught at an early age? We need a new media literacy in every sense of the phrase. This is beyond the three R's that our children learn so they don't get "left behind."
Woukd love to learn of efforts in this area.
Submit a Comment
   
   
   
Enter the words above: * Enter the numbers you hear: *
Switch to audio Switch to image
Thank you for your comment. It will be published after it is approved by an editor. Read our comments policy »