Anyone can be a journalist

In conversations with people in the news business, I regularly hear about the need for “professional journalists.” Ask them what makes a professional journalist and the answers get wishy-washy. Is it someone who is on staff at a newspaper? What about TV anchors? What about commentators? Do you have to have a fancy degree from a top-flight journalism school? Do you have to be able to write eloquently or briefly? (I know people who work for newspapers that can’t do either.)

Unlike medicine, law or plumbing, there is no officially recognized training program, licensing or accreditation process. Actors’ Equity has more stringent requirements for membership than the Society of Professional Journalists.

My answer is none of the above. A journalist is anyone who can report a story.

Just like the best camera is the one you have on you at the time something happens, the best journalist is the person who is there when news happens. At the same time that we have newspapers across the country drastically cutting their staffs, we have an increasing number of people with the tools to do original reporting quickly and easily. (See my earlier post on flickr vs. The Washington Post.) The cameraphone is replacing the reporters’ notebook and the printing press. Not only can it record notes, it can instantly disseminate that information across the globe.

Janis Krums was a journalist on January 15 when US Airways flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River. His tweet “There’s a plane in the Hudson. I’m on the ferry going to pick up the people. Crazy.” and picture were among the lasting memories of the day. The picture has been seen more than 442,000 times on TwitPic, which is greater than the circulation of all but 20 newspapers in the country. That number would be much, much higher if you were able to include the views on sites (including mainstream media sites) that hosted the pictures on their own servers.

If he were employed by a newspaper or wire service, he’d have a decent shot at a Pulitzer for breaking news photography. A key part of winning is being in the right place at the right time.

I used to wonder what I’d do if I found myself in the middle of a big news event to get the story out. Would I call someone I know at the New York Times? Now I know what I’d do: I’d upload a picture from my cameraphone to my flickr, Facebook and Twitter accounts.

Hard-hitting investigative journalism represents a small fraction of the resources spent by news organizations.

Even there, the “professional journalists” have competition. Last week, I attended a Web 2.0 Expo session by Sunlight Labs where technologists gathered to bring more openness and accountability to government. Their mission is to get access to government data that is locked up in ancient computer systems and expose it in ways that the average citizen can consume it. Their tools are XML, parsers and databases. They are journalists, too.

More on: newspapers

Disclosure: I have a fancy degree from a top-flight journalism school. I try to write briefly (on Twitter) and more eloquently here. I used to be on staff at startribune.com and washingtonpost.com. I try to commit journalism for fun.

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About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is CEO of redesign | mobile. Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. His personal blog is at http://blog.agrawals.org and tweets at @rakeshlobster.
This entry was posted in facebook, flickr, journalism, media, mobile, newspapers, publishing, social networking, twitter. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Anyone can be a journalist

  1. Tom says:

    I’ve just come across this and felt the need to post this.
    I don’t know about the situation where you live, but in the UK you do need professional qualifications.

    You’ll need two qualifications in media law – court reporting and general reporting – so you know how to report in a legally sound manner and not open your paper up to lawsuits that could easily cost it tens of thousands of pounds.
    You’ll also need qualifications for papers covering local and central government so you’re aware of key terms and the functions of public bodies.
    This is on top of the certificate in 100wpm shorthand which nearly every newspaper requires before they think about taking you on.
    As for writing eloquently or briefly, you’ll need a qualification in newspaper writing to prove you can do that as well.

    These are just the preliminary exams, which open you up to take the senior reporter qualification, the NCE.

    I say this because nothing makes me angrier than when I hear one of the ad reps on our paper tell us about an advertising client who says “Huh, I could be a journalist, anyone can.”
    Yes, anyone CAN be a journalist (at least over here) provided they prove themselves responsible and intelligent enough first.
    Given the same facts for the same story, you can’t – contrary to popular opinion – just go to your computer and write and automatically possess the same skills as someone who has worked on a paper for years.
    There IS a place for user-submitted content from people who have taken images and videos of dramatic events, but if someone rang me up and said they witnessed something big, both myself and my editor would rather I interview them and quote them than agree to an offer of them writing the piece for our paper.

    This all coming from someone who is a professional journalist (note the absence of quotation marks) in the sense that I have professional qualifications under my belt.

  2. Tom says:

    Just to add to that, I find the note about the cameraphone absolutely ridiculous.

    Again, there’s a place for user-submitted content and cameraphones often are the only source of images for dramatic scenes, because while few people carry digicams or SLRs wherever they go, most people carry a phone.
    But the idea they will REPLACE notepads? Try getting your news in a world where journalists for large news organisations are only allowed to use cameraphones.

    For a start, any court cases would instantly become unreportable, as would important decisions by local councils.
    Covering an embargoed story and need comment? Well, unless you’re within walking distance of the source, you’re going to have waste money driving over to see them and film them on your cameraphone, because you won’t be able to take your notes over the phone and the embargo will prevent you from getting a local source to visit them and ask them.
    As for stories where people request anonymity, or to retain their existing right to anonymity (eg stories from rape victims). Even if you’re not going to broadcast the footage, good luck convincing them to speak while you point a phone camera in their face, when you could just write down what they’re telling you.
    You’ll get lots of good footage of natural disasters/terrorist attacks, but sod all else.

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