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Jul 16, 2008

Note to “old media” journalists: adapt, or stfu!

What makes a proper journalist a proper journalist, wonders Stilgherrian?

What is the future of journalism? To judge by the discussion at this week’s Future of Media Summit held simultaneously in Sydney and Silicon Valley (and every other “new media” conference I’ve been to lately) it’s endless bl–dy whinging. Whinging about how journalism has standards and bloggers are all “just” writing whatever they think.

The panels in both cities covered the same, tired old ground. The new “participatory media” and “citizen journalism” would never be Real Journalism, because Real Journalism is an Art/Craft/Profession. Real Journalism involves research and fact-checking and sub-editing. There’s a Code of Ethics. But “these people”, as bloggers get labelled, these people just sit around in their pyjamas and write whatever comes into their heads.


What’s tiring about this false dichotomy is that it compares the highest ideal of journalism with the lowest grade of personal blogging about what the cat did yesterday and — lo and behold! — they’re not the same. Gosh.

How much everyday journalism actually conforms to the high ideal? Not much. For every Walkley-nominated episode of Four Corners there’s a hundred tawdry yarns about miracle fat cures or shonky builders with a camera shoved in their face. For every investigative scoop there’s a thousand mundane little 5-paragraph yarns that merely quote what someone said at a press conference, and then quote their opponent. Or recycle a media release, putting the journo’s byline where the PR firm’s logo used to be. Or misappropriate statistics to beat up some shock-horror non-existent “crime wave”. Or either fawn or tut-tut over some “celebrity” and their antics — more often than not because that same celebrity is appearing in a TV show or movie that’s completely coincidentally owned by the journalist’s employer.

And you know, some “bloggers” actually know what they’re talking about, interview people, and link to their references to boot.

Dear Journalists, how can you spout all that stuff about “standards” and then go back to your mucky business?

Oh, that’s right. You’re a proper journalist. It’s all the others

Actually, I know why you’re so bitter about “those bloggers”. You worked hard on that student newspaper or street rag while living in uni-student poverty, put up with the abuse of grumpy old chain-smoking subs who bawled you out over trivial spelling mistakes, put up with the unpredictable patronage of editors who promoted everyone else to A Grade but you — you endured all of that hoping that one day you’d get the plum posting. But no! The newsrooms are now being decimated, and the masthead’s adorned with photos of celebrity chefs. And bloggers — bloggers! People with no professional training are leaping into the limelight. Some of them are even being paid! How dare they!

Dear Journalists, in case you hadn’t noticed, the internet and pervasive mobile digital communications change everything.

The shape of your craft and the form of your stories was determined by the technology used to deliver those stories. Newspapers, for instance, worked to their daily cycles, and stories had the length and structure they did because of the physical and operational constraints of putting ink onto paper. Some bloke called McLuhan said something about this, ages back — but I wouldn’t know for sure, because I’m not a proper journalist. Still, it strikes me that the very industrial scale of printing a metropolitan daily or producing a 6pm TV bulletin also shapes the way you go about making your stories: all that mechanism between you the journalist and your audience.

Well, that’s all changed.

We all have keyboards now. We all have mobile phones with cameras, or soon will. We all have publishing and distribution tools like WordPress and YouTube and and Qik, or soon will.

We don’t need a third party in The Mainstream Media to bring us mass-produced stories for mass-produced audiences when we can tell each other our own stories. Stories that are directly meaningful to us — like how niece Sarah did so well at the school concert (and here’s a video), or how the factory’s closing down (and here’s the lousy memo the b-stards sent us). We’re only just learning how to connect myriad storytellers to myriad audiences, but we’re learning fast.

There’s still a role for Real Journalism, of course, with your research and storytelling skills and, yes, with your Code Ethics too. No-one’s saying there won’t be. And you know what? You too can use all these wonderful new tools to create wonderful new forms of Journalism — if only you’d stop whinging about how your world’s falling apart and actually learn to use them. A hint: You don’t have to wait for your grumpy old chain-smoking editor to show you, either, because he’s a dinosaur and will soon be dead.

But nearly every time I hear journalists talking about, say, real-time messaging services like Twitter, it’s about how they can mine it for data, not how they might adapt their craft to this new participatory delivery mechanism. Or they’re waiting for someone else to show them how to do it.

The people already exploring these new media forms will be the leaders. They may not call themselves “journalists” — and they probably don’t want to, since you’re held in such poor esteem these days — but they’ll be fluent in the new media. And you … well, you’ll be stuffed.

Stilgherrian writes at, what we might call “blogging” if journalists weren’t so negative about that word.

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10 thoughts on “Note to “old media” journalists: adapt, or stfu!

  1. Stilgherrian

    While most comments here (so far) nibble around the edges, only one tackles the core issue: Why are journalists so defensive, and why are THEY not coming up with the new forms of reportage? Amy Gahran’s article “Journalism: A Toxic Culture? (Or: Why Aren’t We Having More Fun?)” is a good read re this. I particularly like her comment that journalists have “Priesthood Syndrome”. Indeed, I think her comments about “toxic culture” help explain why this journalist vs the rest argument has gotten so heated at EVERY conference I’ve been to lately.

    BTW, I am not a journalist. Never have been and have never claimed to be. However I have worked in “the media” in various ways, more often than not with “producer” written on my card.

  2. MediaMook

    Excellent article, Stilgherrian. News (that someone somewhere doesn’t want you to know) is still news no matter where it is first reported, isn’t it? It’s interesting that the Guardian’s Roy Greenslade has realised there’s some merits in blogging. Read his views at:

  3. Stilgherrian

    As an aside, there’s quite a few more comments over at … Enjoy!

  4. Samela Harris

    Perchance, some bloggers are suffering printers’ envy?

  5. Connor Moran

    Davo: I propose that there be a cull of every tenth blogger to (partially) reduce the noise on the internet.

  6. Connor Moran

    Stilgherrian doesn’t understand what journalism should be. I recommend he and anyone interested in the subject have a read of Flat Earth News by Nick Davies.

    Bloggers provide poor ratios of dribble/crap you have to read through to get to anything worthy of your time to read it. The content of their “love to hear my own voice” material is tedious and very very very rarely of any importance. What they write doesn’t matter, it isn’t important. Anti-“matter” if you will.

    As another poster nearly said “Journalism is something that someone, somewhere, doesn’t want published. Everything else is advertising.”

    In the new media world for Lord Northcliffe’s quote, you could replace “advertising” with “blogging”.

  7. davo

    A good journalist should know the correct usage of ‘decimate’.

  8. Nicholas Pickard

    As a journalist and a blogger, I don’t quite see why the two have to be mutually exclusive. There are a lot of us in both camps with a trustworthy reputation and followers to boot.

  9. Steve Carey

    Journalists are generally grumpy, cynical and suspicious – news is what someone somewhere doesn’t want you to know, and finding it out while coping with insufficient resources would make almost anyone grumpy and suspicious. And if you worked for the Dirty Digger, Kerry Packer or Robert Maxwell do you think YOU’D be a bundle of joy? They inhabit a world of bad news, so they don’t easily see the upside in things like web 2.0 or blogs. Their grumpiness, cynicism and suspicion serve a useful social function, so don’t be too hard on them. But it’s not the whole story, either. People really ARE relating to each other in new and interesting ways, and Blind Freddy could see that the old media models (free TV, print newspapers) are irreversibly broken. And after all, there was a time before they were around – TV’s only been around for half a century or so – so it’s not as if they have a God-given right to exist (which journos sometimes appear to believe). Stilgherrian is right, folks (can’t call you ladies and gentlemen since so few journos are): evolve or die.

  10. nitwit

    Two observations: people who blog quote journalists a lot. People who blog that once were journalists invariably make much of their (sometimes dodgy) CV in journalism.
    I think this bit is revealing:
    “A hint: You don’t have to wait for your grumpy old chain-smoking editor to show you, either, because he’s a dinosaur and will soon be dead.”
    No one will ever pay for this.