The advantage of amateur journalism

Gary Goldhammer’s Below The Fold blog gives me props in a post on the notion of “unbundled journalists,” which is a way of viewing the rise of the personal media revolution. Gary’s the president of Marcom:Interactive and a respected PR blogger. In a prior entry on the subject, some journalists left good comments, so Gary expands on their thinking:

Does a journalist need the structure and stability of an organization to be successful and credible? Sure, CNN gives Anderson Cooper the freedom to blog, but would he have as much of an audience or impact if he left CNN tomorrow and launched “AndersonCooper360.Blogspot.com”?
He goes on to discuss the difficulty of professional journalists creating their own brands in the changing media environment. I think this is a good discussion, but one in which most professional journalists really don’t wish to participate. Here is what I left in the comments:
When I left the TV News business in 1998, I learned a valuable lesson about media that’s appropriate to this discussion. People that I had known well in the community stopped returning my phone calls. I became just another Joe Schmoe. The lesson is that I had come to confuse my person with my position.

This is at the heart of your commentary, because when we — as institutional journalists — approach other institutions and the people who represent them, we do so AS the institution, not as individuals. Woodward and Bernstein WERE the Washington Post during Watergate.

If you can step far enough away from this picture, you can see the absurdity of it, because institutions exists to further themselves. Power is the goal of each, but many of the rules (written and unwritten) that govern our culture involve the dance between institutions that force coöperation and mutual self-preservation (when was the last time any news organization took on the automobile industry, especially at the local level?). In the end, each is about money, the ultimate god of the culture. The fourth estate may wish to be the first estate, but that can never happen.

Hence, the professional journalist’s quest is not so much for truth as it is for power, and the public is sick of it. And a public sick of any institution’s dismissal will do it for themselves, for the public is vastly more interested in truth than power.

You cannot explain the rise of the personal media revolution through institutional eyes, for it makes no sense. The vast majority of bloggers I know, for example, aren’t paid to blog. This frees them from the restraints mentioned above and makes them extremely dangerous to a status quo caught up in a struggle for institutional power.

So independent journalists (yes, they’re journalists) — armed with only an internet connection — are operating outside the rules, which gives them a tremendous competitive advantage in the search for truth. They operate from the bottom-up, and punch away with whatever they find, and always with an implied “What the fuck?” Our response has been to complain, but to whom? The public? We’ll find no solace there, for our wounds are self-inflicted. The longer and louder we complain, the more we validate the voices of those about whom we’re complaining.

Hence, these are troubling times for the institutional press, but I also believe it’s healthy for journalism, because journalism belongs in the streets and among the people, not rubbing elbows with institutional power, as I did in my news management days.

You see, the lesson I learned when people stopped returning my calls was that my life had been a fantasy. I had believed that I was what I did, and I don’t think I’m alone among journalists. This influenced my entire thought process during my career, and the only cure was the tough school of humility.

These kinds of discussions are vital today, as the professionals confront the advantages that amateurs have. Lawyers will be getting involved soon, and that will be a real test of the first amendment. After all, wouldn’t the existing power structure of the 18th century loved to have been able to stop the Thomas Paines of that era?

Comments

  1. Terry, very well said, insightful and inspirational. The pursuit of money and power has indeed poisoned journalism, and in some cases has led to irresponsible “reporting” and demagoguery (Lou Dobbs of CNN comes to mind.) Let’s hope the discussion continues, and that journalism spends more time “in the streets” as you suggest and not in the halls of institutional power.

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