vrijdag 6 september 2013

No, not everyone is a journalist and it takes money and effort to produce news

Published in NRC Handelsblad August 20, 2013.

‘Everyone journalist’, that was the telling title of the three-part documentary about the crisis in journalism, shown on Dutch public broadcasting past summer. In the many discussions on the future of journalism that is a recurring theme. Journalists have lost their monopoly on news, because nowadays anyone with a smart phone can easily capture news and share it online immediately. Anyone can do it, so the argument goes; no special qualifications or skills are needed to be a journalist. Breaking news is faster on Twitter than in the ‘old’ media. Moreover, citizens are not prepared anymore to obediently wait for the media to tell them what the news of the day is. They actively search the web, create their own news menu, add comments and share it online. News is everywhere and it is free. The people of the old media are still daydreaming about their glorious past instead of investing in innovations such as projects with ‘twitterati’, bloggers or ‘citizen journalists’. The old school reporters have no idea that their professional fort is about to collapse. That was the message of the documentary, which was completely in line with the present dominant discourse about the future of journalism.
The problem is that it is mainly based on caricatures of both the news and the profession of the journalist, resulting in underestimating the significance that professionals have for independent and reliable news. There is a crisis in the media indeed: the Internet systematically undermined the classical commercial model of the media with subscribers and advertisers. But a problem with the business model is something else than an alleged crisis in professional journalism and the important values it represents.

At the center of many ‘innovative’ proposals is the idea that the autonomy of the professional can be sacrificed to a sort of cooperation with communities online. News selection should no longer be determined by professional criteria, but by the algorithms ruling the flows of information on the Internet. Even ‘branded journalism’ –writing articles commissioned and paid for by companies- is presented as an ‘interesting’ innovation.

All these ‘innovations’ are contrary to the mission of professional journalism: to gather and distribute reliable and independent news on current affairs that are relevant to society. This type of news is produced by using a professional and replicable method, meeting the criteria of verifiable facts and identifiable sources. Moreover, professionals are accountable for their publications, both to colleagues and to the public. The existence of a professional culture in journalism is not only a guaranty for a certain level of quality; it also protects journalism from commercial or political pressures. And also from audiences, because there are no citizens without interests.
Indeed, anyone can publish on the Internet, but with this has little to do with journalism without a professional method and without accountability. Professional news is not up for grabs, it requires effort, research, reporting, interviews, consulting sources, analyze data, checking facts and providing context. That kind of news costs money and it constitutes a threat to independent news in society when the old business model collapses.
In the future new commercial model will certainly be developed, so people will somehow pay for this news, but it would be extremely unwise in this transition phase to give up on professional journalism as a relic of the past. It’s not about the survival of newspapers or news channels; it is about the survival of the values of professional journalism - in any digital form whatsoever. This journalism requires a strong professional culture, a structured self-regulation and good journalism schools. Because no, not everyone is a journalist.

Marc Josten is chief editor of ARGOS TV (HUMAN / VPRO).
Dr. Peter Vasterman is assistant professor in Media and Journalism at the University of Amsterdam.

This is an abridged version of their opening lecture for the new students of the Master’s in Journalism at the University of Amsterdam on August 26, 2013.