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.