Thursday, March 24, 2011

Extinction of journalism as a profession

Two bits of information caught my attention this week. The first one was published by AFP and referred to the call by 26,000 strong union of US media workers, The Newspaper Guild, on contributors to The Huffington Post to stop providing free content to the site (!).

"Just as we would ask writers to stand fast and not cross a physical picket line, we ask that they honor this electronic picket line," the guild said in a statement.

"We feel it is unethical to expect trained and qualified professionals to contribute quality content for nothing," the guild said. "Working for free does not benefit workers and undermines quality journalism."
Wow. They must really start to feel like dinosaurs, reverting to desperate measures to defend their journalistic turf. For those who haven’t heard about The Huffington Post, it’s a collection of free blogs, on a variety of topics, that attract a huge worldwide audience which in turn allows monetisation of the content with online advertising – so works on the same basic principle as any newspaper, but in an online environment. It was recently acquired by AOL for $315 million.

Don’t get me wrong. I really feel for the individuals who may have been involved in the industry for many years and now are facing rapidly changing environment to which they don’t know how to adapt. The business model their bosses are running is under extreme threat and it may mean many will have to leave the industry and search for other work. Sad indeed but that’s the price of progress and it happened to many professions in the past.

This news item went relatively unnoticed but it highlights the attitude that media industry, as a whole, has towards other participants in the media/publishing sphere: dividing them into “the real journalists” and the impostors. And again, demonstrating a failure to understand that the changes are the result of globalisation and underlying structural changes - resulting in reduction in profitability and revenue levels in comparison with the past.

Journalism is becoming a bit of a commodity – the word no longer describes an occupation but rather an activity that anyone can do in a spare time. (Anyone who has an opinion! And not necessarily expecting any monetary reward for doing it).

So, what is actually a definition of journalism? Webster’s dictionary defines journalism as: “the work of gathering, writing, editing, and publishing or disseminating news, as through newspapers and magazines or by radio and television”. The American Heritage Dictionary of English Language has a very similar definition. Webster follows the same pattern. Australian’s Macquarie Dictionary is no different… But Collins English Dictionary puts a slightly broader perspective on the term: “1. (Communication Arts / Journalism & Publishing) the profession or practice of reporting about, photographing, or editing news stories for one of the mass media”. That means, if we stretch the definition of mass media to include the internet, journalism can relate to online publishing as well.

And that broader view of journalism is gaining recognition at the highest levels, at least in Australia, which brings me to the second news item of significance. As reported by Mumbrella, The House of Representatives backed laws that will ensure that anyone involved in the production of news – regardless of where they work – can seek to avoid a source being identified. In other words, “shield laws” will give bloggers and tweeters the same rights as professional journalists to protect their sources. And most importantly, the news has been welcomed by the journalists' union, the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, as “groundbreaking”. We may be “down under” but on top in terms of progressive thinking. It is an indication that the local industry seems to be much better in tune with the emerging environment than their overseas colleagues. It also raises some hope that the local media sector has a good chance to adapt to the new market conditions and to find a profitable business model to ensure its long term future. True, with the recent acquisition of holiday accommodation booking portals Fairfax may have overreached a bit in its quest to diversify into transactional services (ie. what does accommodation booking has to do with journalism?) but at least they are actively trying different ideas to find the right model for a sustainable media business.

Related Posts:
Writing is still a good business
Big media waking up to opportunities