This afternoon, having rummaged around the back of the telephone for a very dog-eared book token, I went out and bought Clay Shirky’s new tome, ‘Here Comes Everybody – The Power Of Organizing Without Organizations’.
I haven’t finished it. I’ve dipped and dabbled; a dangerous pursuit if I was a serious reviewer. I’m not. I’m a journalist by day; a writer, by night. The only thing the two have in common is the fact that, with either hat on, I employ the same means of distribution. You read both on a screen. I don’t stain wood.
Otherwise, the two – journalist and writer – are pretty much chalk and cheese. One delivers conversation, the other comment. And while the distinction between the two may, on occasion, blur with my journalistic hat on; with my writer ‘Out With A Bang’ hat on, it is black and white.
I don’t do conversation. There’s no two-way interaction here. This is me just shouting my mouth off, little more. Half the time there’s no-one out there anyway.
And as I read Chapter Three: Everyone Is A Media Outlet and Shirky’s difficulty in defining just what is a journalist in this digital age, that’s the thought that crossed my mind – that a journalist is simply someone with regular access to a near-private conversation.
Near-private because that ‘conversation’ could come in the form of a Press conference; and if that Press conference is beamed – or, rather, web-cast – live to the world, then the ‘near-private’ conversation is the one that you have in hushed tones once the cameras stop rolling; the little look that crosses one party’s face as his aides usher him hurriedly out of the room. Aimed at the right journalist with the right interpretative skills, that is a ‘conversation’ of the highest order. But it needs skills.
And here’s the other key ingredient, that conversation is ‘regular’ – that it is part of a journalist’s trade-craft to be able to have and to hold a conversation with a contact and then, story written and published, to still be able to have a conversation with that same contact. To keep him or her sufficiently ‘onside’, that they are still there the next time you need a Page 6 lead in a hurry.
And that, likewise, is a skill.
Interestingly, you could argue that it is a skill that is more finely-honed and appreciated in a local journalist than it is in a national journalist; that the latter can drop in, do an interview, cane the person concerned and never have to worry about darkening their door-step again.
Work the local beat and there’s a far finer level of diplomacy required to push the story to it’s natural ‘limits’ and still be welcome back on that person’s door-step. Or on their mobile phone.
Of course, there will be occasions where – even on that local beat – the story is of sufficient import that bridges have to be burnt; ties cut; relations severed. But it is a judgement call; a skill; a craft.
And not everybody can do it.
And that’s my point – I can wield a bread knife with the best of them; doesn’t make me a brain surgeon. Just because I can tap a keyboard and publish to the waiting world-wide web, doesn’t make me a journalist. Can make me a very good writer; a hugely influential ‘blogger’, but doesn’t make me a journalist.
And, for me, there’s value in that distinction that Shirky over-looks. In 90% of what he says, fine. Spot on.
A newspaper’s control of the means of distribution has gone.
A journalist’s control of regular access to a near-private conversation? Nope, that’s still there – that’s the ‘scarcity’ that he misses.
“Most professions exist because there is a scarce resource that requires on-going management…’
The ‘scarce resource’ is the invite to the near-private conversation. But he’s spot on about that needing ‘on-going management’. It’s called Ex’s. Or lunch. Or a drink at the bar round the corner.
“It used to be hard to move words, images, and sounds from creator to consumer and most media businesses involve expensive management of the pipeline problem, whether running a printing press or a record label…
“…Now though the problems of production, reproduction and distribution are much less serious. As a consequence, control over the media is less completely in the hands of the professionals.”
Fine. But for everybody else out there, the problems of access to that near-private conversation are, arguably, just as serious as they ever have been.
I would argue that you need a professional to simply worm and squirrel your way through the banks of PR people that surround most of the people we need to have a conversation with, let alone to then know how to act and report as and when ‘contact’ was made. And all with a view to keeping that contact ‘alive’.
‘Here Comes Everybody’ – but have they got an invite? That’s the question.
Who, even now, do you give the invite to? Go back to bread knives and brain surgeons – I might have been burning the midnight oil on my scalp-slicing style, but is anyone actually going to give me an invite to perform surgery? Not when access to the requisite patient – the one with the blinding headache – is so limited.
Likewise, can ‘everybody’ physically fit into a locker room, a council chamber, a magistrates court? What about their own day jobs…
And if the answer is ‘No!’, who do you invite in for a near-private conversation with the coach, the mayor or the judge? The writer or the journalist? Bearing in mind you’re looking for someone who can hold that near-private conversation on a regular basis?
“The future presented by the Internet is the mass amateurization of publishing and a switch from ‘Why publish this?’ to ‘Why not?'”
Why not? Cos you call coach a tw*t and publish and you won’t get invited back.
Defining what we are, what we do when we’re not talking to ourselves and writing blogs – but talking to others (regularly) and writing journalism – is crucial to our survival because we have to prove where the value is in this publishing process.
“If anyone can be a publisher, then anyone can be a journalist.”
Wrong. If anyone can be a publisher, then anyone can be a writer.
“Journalistic privilege is based on the previous scarcity of publishing. When it was easy to recognise who the publisher was, it was easy to figure out who the journalists were. We could regard them as professional (and therefore minority) category. Now that scarcity is gone…
“For a generation that is growing up without the scarcity that made publishing such a serious-minded pursuit, the written word has no special value in and of itself.”
Shirky cites two fine and up-standing examples of the craft of journalism pre the Internet’s dawn – Bob Woodward and his Uncle Howard, of the Washington Post and the Richmond Daily News respectively. Both are clearly professionals.
And what made them professionals? The ability to get ‘Deep Throat’ to a multi-story car park late one night and, I suspect, the ability to get the Mayor of Richmond out of bed in the early hours of the morning when something big broke – and still be able to talk to both the next morning.
Both could hold a semi-private, if not exclusive, conversation with a major source at any time of day or night. And all on a regular basis – for as and when the next story demanded.
And not everybody can do that.