Monday, 16 November 2009

I got to thinking about non-profit journalism and its possible future impact on the profession recently. A number of elements combined to spur this train of thought, which is centred around resuscitating journalists' flagging reputation.

We all know that journalists are among the general population's least-favourite citizens. They consistently rank low on the popularity scale. In fact, last time I looked, they come in just above politicians, lawyers, and used-car salesmen.

Isn't it time something was done to address this dismal record?

Maybe now that Rupert Murdoch appears so concerned about the massive drop in his newspapers' profitability, we can anticipate a return to acclaim. But wasn't it ever thus, you say? Weren't hacks always reviled?

You can point with as much unrestrained pride, if you like, to the essential service that journalists provide in the community. After all, the freedom of the press is enshrined, in the US, in the constitution's first amendment. In Australia, legal recognition came later - as part of the high Court's 1997 ruling in the Lange v Australian Broadcasting Corporation case.

It was found that press freedom is implied in the constitution. Without press freedom to publish at any time, representative democracy cannot exist.

This is a negative affirmation of a right, but it is critical. Nevertheless, it seems that journalists have always been considered unethical, rapacious, over-eager, and prone to salivating over the prospect of a good story at the expense of everything else, including propriety.

News has been big business for a long time, but not as long as the press has been a public bug-bear. Ben Jonson's play, The Staple of News, was first performed in 1626. Even then, press people had a bad rep to fight.

But with the marriage of big business and the press came further cause of anger, as media bosses with an agenda to promote used their companies and their reporters to push a line. Nobody who reads The Australian today can be ignorant of this.

If business gets so bad that big media companies simply collapse due to lack of cashflow, will we be left with purely non-profit vehicles? Can this help to inject some much-needed credibility into the profession of journalist?

It remains to be seen. In any case, in Australia and the UK, we have viable - and respected - public media companies that will do anything to increase their share of the public's attention. It will be interesting to see if the reputation of the ABC takes a hit when its market-share increases.


picturegrl said...

Actually, I worry that with the rise of citizen journalism, we will be reviled more than ever, for two reasons. Untrained, loosely ethical citizen journalists may further tarnish the image of both full-time journalists and their citizen JN peers who are ethics-conscious. And by the same token, guys who slam tons of stuff out every day make it look easy, further reducing our perceived value. It IS easy -- if you don't bother to check your sources, worry about grammar, get both sides of the story, etc.

Don't get me wrong - there are some citizen journalists out there who are doing a far better job than staffers. But when I think about all the mistakes I've made over the years, I'm grateful for the editors who were present to guide me, chide me, and at times, point blank say: "Not no, but H*LL no."

Not only that, but as competition increases among freelancers, myself included, I expect we're going to see some questionable practices start occurring. Already, I see founders/editors of hyperlocal sites selling advertising. Does no one see a problem with this?

Maybe I'm just too hard-nosed. I was an editor for a long time. I'm not an editor anymore, because I took an ethical stand against my publishers which was picked up by our competition, and eventually AP, CJR, etc. Within 24 hours, I was forced to resign.

I loved that job. Sometimes I wonder why I couldn't just keep my mouth shut and play nice.

Matt da Silva said...

Thanks for the comment. I'm a little puzzled by the 'both sides of the story' argument, tho. In Twitter conversations, it seems the journalists who embrace social media are moving away from an adherence to 'balanced journalism'. Any comments on this? Thx.