Tag Archives: professionalism

Journalism: a trade, not a profession

Star responds to my enquiry about her media recession with an interesting viewpoint from the US. 

She says: 

I am seeing the profession of writing–and I do consider it a profession–being downgraded by digitization and outsourcing.

I’d disagree, in as much as I consider writing for the media or marketing (which is what we’re largely talking about here) a trade, rather than a profession.

What’s the difference? 

Well, you don’t (or shouldn’t) need a degree to practise a trade. Training, yes. Maybe vocational qualifications or some kind, especially if you’re operating heavy machinery or working with volatile chemicals. 

But journalism – or any kind of paid-for writing – doesn’t need even that. It certainly doesn’t need “professionalisation” in the sense of a university path towards qualification. (Especially given the poor match between what universities teach on journalism degrees and the requirements of the media industry.)

Why do many in the media talk about it as a profession? Mainly to try to shore up the crumbling walls of their career.

If you can professionalise a trade that is otherwise easy to enter, you can, with luck, stop people entering it. Following the law of supply and demand, fewer people in any line of work should mean higher pay for them. 

Unfortunately for this argument in the UK (and I assume in the US), a BA is now a de facto minimum standard of educational aspiration for non-underclass young people. 

This means a BA becomes much less useful as a professional filter. If around half your education leavers have one, it’s difficult to see how elitist it can be. And without elitism, it’s difficult to exclude new entrants to professions and so keep incomes up.

Oddly enough, journalism is seen as an easier degree option than, say, biochemistry, so that’ll push up student numbers. And it’s seen (rightly or wrongly) as a vocational degree that will be helpful in getting employment, which is why I suspect it’s taken the place of media studies as the soft degree of choice for some students.

The result? No real benefit for “professional” journalism in terms of keeping incomes up. But a massive downside in terms of student debt racked up by young people taking a journalism BA, with low prospects for a high income to compensate for it. 

Star underlines the horror of all this in her comment. She says: 

Writing is now “repurposing” (changing the words in someone else’s work to make it “original”) or else pulling 400 words out of your brain as authoritative. It’s educated typing, I guess. I saw an ad for 1000 articles–hey, a thousand bucks! Who could even type that much–that’s 5 novels’ worth.

Writing, and hence journalism, is valued less and less – by both the people who publish it and by those who consume it. Unlike plumbing, say, it’s a trade that people seem to be able to live without. 

Simply calling writing a profession won’t prevent it from being undermined and undervalued. At least calling it a trade makes it a bit easier to deal with psychologically.

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More on the demise of the professional journalist

Here’s a good essay from Dan Tynan on the pressure faced by “real” journalists (ie those who spend time doing original research, rather than regurgitating other people’s material verbatim and claiming credit for it).

He contrasts the effort required to produced a thoroughly researched and well-written 2,500 word article with the instant traffic generated for bloggers who pick up on the material and repost it, sometimes with little or no attribution. 

Ultimately, he argues that most of the blogosphere is parasitic on the efforts of the professionals. Without the real thing, he says, the world of regurgitated news will have nothing left to feed on, and we will all be poorer for it. 

Unless you only care about one or two topics in your life, you need generalists who can give you the world in 60 seconds, or 6 pages, or however long you have time for. You need people like me. Whether you like it or not.

It’s not a new idea – back in 2006 Coyote Blog discussed the relationship between blogs and newspapers in some detail, and noted that “few bloggers would disagree with this view that we depend on the reporting of the [mainstream media] for a starting point of much of what we do”.

But Coyote isn’t generally a big fan of journalists – he thinks they are lazy, sloppy, partisan and ignorant, particularly when it comes to an understanding of statistics or science. And you know what? I often agree with him. Tellingly, he points out:

One of the mistakes newspaper-types make in comparing newspapers to blogs is that they compare the reality of blogs with the ideals of newspapers, particularly on things like sourcing and fact-checking.

So where could the media go in future? 

Coyote argues that the value of blogs is in a kind of “network or swarm”. Read enough of them and you get a much richer and deeper knowledge than if you skim the paper on the way to work:

No newspaper, for example, has even one tenth the economic firepower the combination of Cafe HayekMarginal Revolution, the Knowledge Problem, and the Mises Blog, among many others, bring to my desktop. 

Dan Tynan’s argument is that journalists perform a mediating role that information-seeking humans really need. Some may suggest that this role is now redundant. But Tynan argues: 

My response is, why shop at the grocery store? Why not hunt and kill your own food? […] Why rely on professionals for anything?

As I noted in the comments to the post, I think this misses the point. Although his argument is valid, the uncomfortable truth is that journalism isn’t as important to most people as journalists think it is. (I know, I’ve said it before. I’ll say it again soon too, probably.) 

The problem with the grocery store/hunt it yourself analogy is that we really do need to eat, but we really don’t need to read well-researched articles on whatever topic it may be. I mean, it’s nice, but it’s optional.

That’s also probably why very few of us will spend the time needed to read updates on 20 or 30 specialist blogs to learn about important issues. You have to be a real news junkie to do that. 

So, are we facing a future of more-or-less informed babble with little or no “real” investigative reporting?

Even if we are, there really isn’t much we, on the supply side of the equation, can do about it. 

But take heart – there is life after journalism. Your hard-won skills don’t have to go to waste…

HT: David Woodward

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