Journalism: Why Force the Amateur and the Professional Together?

Before I get into this too deeply, I had better make two points: First, I have a great deal of respect for Jay Rosen, the New York University journalism professor who, for twenty years, has been behind some of the best and most innovative attempts to reform the professional and commercial news media. Rosen was a key thinker in the “public journalism” movement of the 1990s, one of the only bright spots of a dismal decade for journalism. Second, I am an active member of ePluribus Media (ePM), a “citizen journalist” group that attempts to bypass the professional and commercial news media completely—though only in our own particular projects (we have no interest in the destruction of the professional and commercial news media).

It is my participation in ePM that led me to this essay. Another ePM “citizen journalist,” who uses the name “wanderindiana,” posted a diary entitled “ Top-down ‘Citizen Journalism’” that brought me once again to consideration of the problem of the professional versus the amateur in terms of journalism.

In his post, “wanderindiana” is responding to Rosen’s newest project, something called “” Jeff Jarvis at BuzzMachine describes what Rosen envisions:

The public will come to with story ideas and will collaborate on honing them there. Once assigned by NewAssignment’s editors, the public will contribute both money and reporting to the work that reporters are paid to do. The process is open and the public will have a strong voice and role in the journalism NewAssignment does. Editors will supervise the assignments and the reporting and will edit the stories, assuring that NewAssignment produces quality journalism and also that it is not overtaken by a pressure groups.

Rosen, on his blog PressThink, further describes the project:

The site uses open source methods to develop good assignments and help bring them to completion; it employs professional journalists to carry the project home and set high standards so the work holds up.[…]

[T]he site gives out real assignments— paid gigs with a chance to practice the craft of reporting at a high level. Because they’re getting paid, the journalists who contract with New Assignment have the time—and obligation—to do things well. That means working with the smart mobs [Howard Rheingold’s term for an aware and wired populace working in concern] who gave rise to the assignment and handed it over to an editor and correspondent with the story part-of-the-way there.

Rosen calls this “networked journalism,” a phrase concocted by Jarvis for describing amateurs and professionals cooperating in the news-media field, particularly by taking advantage of new technologies.

Unfortunately, as “wanderindiana” writes, Rosen’s is:

a top-down model, and that is why it is doomed to no more than limited success.[…]

With, all I see here is the gatekeepers looking for a way to hold the power. Why would true “citizen journalists” give up the power to publish on their own in a free and open medium to be subjects to the self-appointed Overlords of the New Media?

What we have here, as that warden said about Cool Hand Luke, is a failure to communicate. For all his brilliance, Rosen has not recognized that the key feature of the rise of “citizen journalism” is a rejection of the importance of the participation of professionals in a “citizen journalist’s” project. Until he thoroughly explores just why this happens, Rosen will continue to make assumptions about “citizen journalists” that are not warranted. Assumptions that, as “wanderindiana” points out, make it highly unlikely that his project will be a success of the type he imagines.

The assumption behind Rosen’s project is that, while “citizen journalists” do have something to offer, the professionals have skills and a professional ethic that add competency to any individual assignment and that will make sure the result adheres to high ethical standards.

While I applaud the desire to find a way to get the professionals and the amateurs working together, each taking advantage of what the other offers, Rosen’s assumption (again) is not warranted.

(For the purposes of this essay, I’m going to bypass the question of “professionalism” in the news media—whether or not there really are professional standards, including ethical standards, that govern the field. An assumption that there are, or even that the “standards” are a myth, makes no difference to the point I am trying to make here.)

One of the fears of news media professionals is that amateurs on the Internet will eventually push them away, reducing the accuracy and objectivity of the new news media, making journalism nothing more than mob response to events. They are defensive of their skills and importance and are proud of their journalism heritage, and they worry that the best of the profession will suffer for the sins of the worst.

“Citizen journalists,” on the other hand, see the professionals as lacking in the passion necessary for real and effective delving into the specific issues the “citizen journalists” address. They point to “drive-by journalism,” where the professionals pass quickly through a story, never really getting to the heart of the matter.

Rosen hopes to bring these two attitudes together, utilizing the strengths of each, creating a new journalism paradigm that contains the best of both worlds.

Thing is, Rosen’s model calls for the professionals (both reporters and editors) to take over each assignment at some point in the process. This, to “citizen journalists,” is completely unacceptable.

Even when they recognize the value of the professional journalist (and only a fool would deny it), the “citizen journalist” sees no need to cede control of any assignment. The professional can work with the amateur, certainly, but not as the boss—at least, not in the ”citizen journalist’s” eye. There is no reason for the professional to take over. As ePM shows with each new story on its Journal site, amateurs can fact-check with the best, can edit superbly, and can hold each other to high ethical standards. Yes, professionals have more extensive resources and, sometimes, backgrounds allowing them to bring to the table things the amateur can match only rarely—but they are neither necessary guides nor needed fronts.

In addition, in the mind of the “citizen journalist,” there are problems inherent in the fact of being a professional in journalism. One’s goals are different from those of an amateur—career considerations are going to trump the needs of the story from time to time. They have to: the professional, after all, makes his or her living through the work and has to keep that in mind.

Also, many of us involved in “citizen journalism” have dabbled in professional journalism, leaving for a variety of reasons (and not simply because we could not “make it” in the field). As a group, we have all the skills needed for the type of projects we initiate.

We “citizen journalists” work together based on what each of us can offer a particular project. We don’t “pull rank”—in ePM, no one has ever said they should be listened to by virtue of some past professional experience in the field. Some of us find we are better writers than we are researchers. Others just love fact-checking and do it splendidly. And some actually prefer to edit the work of others. There is no hierarchy, though; we work back and forth as equals.

What Rosen is asking us to do is to give up our egalitarianism because he believes the professionals can do a better job.

Is it any wonder that there are those amongst us, “wanderindiana” included, who look askance at Rosen’s project?

There is a place for the professional journalist, even in the expanding media universe of the twenty-first century. Spot news reporting, for example, takes confidence and a set of skills that only training and experience can build. But there is no reason to impose the professionals on what “citizen journalists” are already learning to do for themselves—and for each other.

I hope Rosen, will listen to “wanderindiana,” to me, and to the other “citizen journalists,” and will begin to understand that it’s not a melding of the professional and the amateur that’s needed. As I said, there’s room in this new media universe for both.

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