Yesterday afternoon, while driving home, I was listening to the NPR Technology podcast. They had an interesting piece on the death of high-school newspapers, including a discussion of the primary suspect: citizen journalism. Basically, the news reporting that high-school newspapers used to do has been replaced by students reporting in real-time via twitter and other social media sites. At least I think that’s what the article says; I didn’t read it all. More on that later.
What caught my ear at the time was the following statement from Scott Simon, who did the piece:
Hearing that school newspapers are in decline because students now “find out what happened” in social media bites is a little discouraging because it confirms that for millions of Americans, journalism is becoming a do-it-yourself enterprise.
When a tornado strikes or a bomb goes off, we look for social media messages as soon as they flash, too. Facebook posts and Tweets have become the means by which politicians, celebrities, citizens — and reporters, for that matter — can confirm, deny, pass on stories and register opinion without the press challenging, probing, pre-supposing, slowing or straining the message. That’s just how we talk to each other in these times.
Matt Drudge, who runs his own controversial website, says, “We have entered an era vibrating with the din of small voices. Every citizen can be a reporter.”
But truly good journalism is a craft, not just a blog post. It requires not only seeing something close-up, but also reporting it with perspective. It uses an eye for detail to help illuminate a larger view. And even journalism that conveys an opinion strives to be fair. If school newspapers begin to disappear, I hope there are other ways for students to learn that.
This isn’t just high school newspapers. Recently, the Chicago Sun-Times laid off all of their professional photographers, preferring instead to go with freelance citizen photos. Indeed, some papers have had to advertise for citizen photographers because they no longer have the staff. As for the laid-off photographers? That’s a different story.
When I heard this article, it resonated with me. So I decided to take a few minutes over lunch to write up my thoughts. In particular, it resonated with a response I had back in March to an article complaining about amateur vs professional theatre critics. Colin Mitchell of the theatre review aggregation site Bitter Lemons, in turn, wrote a wonderful response to my response. I see the issue as being similar to the issue of citizen journalists vs. real journalists. Both bring something valuable to the picture: citizen journalists (and citizen reviewers) bring timely information and personal reactions. Professional journalists (and professional reviewers) bring a longer-term view. They can put the issue in perspective, provide the needed filtering and context. Regular bloggers fill a middle position — they start as amateurs, but hopefully are learning more and stepping up their game (such as following this advice, if you are a theatre reviewer) as time goes on. (By the way, if you read the commentary on the NPR article, it devolved into exactly the same discussion that was had regarding theatre reviews: are those writing in the blog-o-sphere just hacks, or aspiring independent journalists?)
Of course, the entire issue may be moot. After all, both journalists and bloggers are a dying breed, as we are in the TL;DR generation. Slate magazine provides good proof of that, with an article that examines how people don’t actually read most articles on the Internet to the very end. Given that I’m a long-form writer, I’m sure you haven’t even read this far (or if you have, I doubt that you will comment on this, because nobody comments on what I write anymore — and if you think that is a challenge or is wrong, share your thoughts). Further, those who comment often get shouted out by those louts who take over forums (of course, I didn’t fully read that article). On the other hand, there are those who say long form journalism is coming back. Who is right? Slate and their contention that people don’t read to the end of long articles? USA Today, Politico, and BuzzFeed in their contention on the rebirth of long form journalism?
Personally, I don’t know. All I know is that I don’t think “short form”. I don’t believe one can have a meaningful exploration of a subject in 144 characters or less, or as a Facebook status update. I think this even applies to the “lists of links” people post. I don’t believe it is sufficient to just post lists of links — there needs to be some unifying theme — there needs to be something the link collector brings to the discussion that ties the links together, or otherwise signifies why this link is worth seeing, why it is time to read that link to the end. That’s why just posting a link to people using cats as afros just isn’t enough.