Anybody Can Be a Journalist

Here are some dirty secrets that journalists (and, to my great astonishment, Derek Powazek) don’t want bloggers to know about:

  • All you need is $18 to purchase an AP Stylebook, which covers libel, slander and a variety of rules that will assist you in confirming facts.
  • There’s a helpful little device called a telephone that will allow you to contact people who can comment on a topic or an issue. People will be happy to talk with you.
  • The New York Times, among many other newspapers, makes factual mistakes on a daily basis, many of which are covered and discovered by bloggers.
  • Traditional print journalists are scared to death of bloggers, because there’s now a new medium demanding accountability.

Definition 1 of my Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary defines “journalism” as “the occupation of reporting, writing, editing, photographing, or broadcasting news or of conducting any news organization as a business.” (Emphasis added.) And there’s the problem right there. Because when you’re adopting a professional, businesslike tone that subscribes to a particular style and format, the no-holds-barred arena of weblogging becomes compromised. While having no limits leads to journalism without limits (e.g., having no advertisers, a more journalistically inclined weblog can run a story heavily critical of the company), conversely, a weblogger’s contribution in this regard will be tainted by his own subjective viewpoint (link poaching, relying on others to do the work, falling prey to one’s own subjective take on the subject, rather than interviewing multiple parties). This, I believe, is what Powazek was getting at.

Fortunately, weblogs are covered in my dictionary under Definition 4: “writing that reflects superficial thought and research, a poupular slant, and hurried composition, conceived of as exemplifying newspaper or popular magazine writing as distinguished from scholarly writing.”

I think the weblogs that are concerned with information (and, more often than not, devoted to reporting their information accurately), sometimes in a manner that falls in line with current ethical standards and frequently with a tone that is as far as one can get from “old and dying,” represent a New New New Journalism (depending on how many modifiers you attach) lying somewhere between these two definitions. And whether Powazek and others like it or not, weblogs have arrived as new exemplars of journalism. The medium is admittedly still young and has a lot of room to grow, and often gets its facts screwed up. But then so do newspapers and television. Just ask Dan Rather.

I would certainly count the author interviews, accounts of bookstore signings, book reviews, and book review coverage summaries featured so prominently on litblogs during any given week as a new form of arts journalism. These reports are certainly subjective, but from what I can tell there is an overwhelming devotion to not only get the facts straight, but link to the other news sources and bloggers who are pursuing the issues. (For example, the Zoo Press scandal reported here last year involved teaming up with Laila, Kerry Jones, and other interested parties to determine how Neil Azevedo was spending contest funds. The story was then picked up by Poets & Writers Magazine.)

With enough trial and error, hard work, and dedication to ethics, any person can do this. That’s what’s so exciting about the information-oriented weblog. And what’s really great about this “learn as you go” idea is that this falls in line with how many of today’s journalists got their training: not with a journalism degree, but through diligent and consistent work.

In a post on his weblog, Powazek writes:

To become a journalist, you have to go to school, go to college, intern at some crap paper, work for crap wages, write whatever dreck the established writers don’t want, put up with ego-maniacal, power-mad, amateur Napoleon editors who will freak out if you put a capital letter in the wroNg place, and do this all for years and years before they let you near a story that matters.

This may be true in part (certainly the “crap wages” aspect is, although most editors I’ve had the pleasure to work with are hardly “Napoleonic” and have been very helpful to me). But here’s a list of journalists who pursued other interests while in college, many of them deciding later that journalism was what they wanted to do. Once in the inner sanctum, they were able to perfect their craft on the job:

Thomas M. Burton: Bachelor’s in history, doctor of laws degree. (Winner: 2004 Explanatory Writing Pulitzer.)

Garteh Cook: Graduated in 1991 with a double major in International Relations and Mathematical Physics. Went on to work at Foreign Policy. (Winner: 2005 Explanatory Reporting Pulitzer.)

Kevin Helliker: Bachelor’s in English literature. (Winner: 2004 Explanatory Writing Pulitzer.)

Julia Keller: Doctorate in English. (Winner: 2005 Feature Writing Pulitzer.)

Amy Dockser Marcus: Graduated in 1987 with a bachelor’s degree in history and literature. (Winner: 2005 Beat Reporting Pulitzer.)

Kim Murphy: Graduated in 1977 with English BA. (Winner: 2005 International Reporting Pulitzer.)

The point here being that journalists come from many backgrounds (although many of them are, predictably enough, English majors) and that actually performing the work of a journalist wll lead one to become better at it.

Even if you don’t consider a weblog to be journalism, it would be foolish to discount the remarkably symbiotic relationship between weblogs and journalism that calls for greater discovery and greater probing on both sides. If a weblog uncovers a clue, the journalist, with resources at his disposal, pursues it. If a journalist screws up a fact, then the weblogger is there to call him on it. What if the Apple leaks had been another missing detail about Abu Ghraib? Would that then be outside the purview of protection?

Of course, the ultimate problem with weblogs is the lack of editors and lack of accreditation. The horrid side effect of instant journalism is that once a story has been let loose or given a certain spin (such as the recent San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ proposal to regulate weblogs, which has already been discounted by statements from various Supervisors and the City Attorney), it contributes to the wild whorl of lies or a certain partisan spin.

But journalism has evolved to a point where reactionary definitions are obsolete. The Internet is here to stay. And those determined to dig deep will keep on digging, regardless of whether or not they collect their paycheck from a newspaper.

So perhaps instead of wasting precious energy complaining about what is or isn’t journalism or engaging in this tedious weblogs vs. journalism debate, maybe the time has come for those who are in the business of reporting to extend their hands across the table.


  1. You said: “the ultimate problem with weblogs is the lack of editors and lack of accreditation”

    That is only a problem if you have a journalistic expectation from blogs. And that expectation is what I’m railing against.

    Blogs are incredible BECAUSE of the “lack of editors and lack of accreditation” not in spite of it. They’re wonderful first-person voices. To expect them to be anything else is a mistake.

    Certainly there IS journalism going on online. But to say that all weblogs are doing journalism and that they should get the same rights as reporters is insane. There’s a big hairy difference that I think a lot of people overlook. That’s what I was ranting about.

    I say: Hooray for the weblog, bastion of free speech, unencumbered by all the crap that weighs down traditional journalism! We should celebrate the blog for what it is, not for the festering carcass of journalism it sometimes smells like.

  2. Derek: I should clarify. I was referring to information weblogs regarding the lack of editors. A second pair of eyes is what fact-checking and solid reportage is all about. It can be a co-writer/editor or input through comments and email from readers, the latter of which have been used here to clarify information (Thank you again, readers!). Some weblogs that function without this are often utterly porous as a result, giving into crazed subjective viewpoints that taint the process. (Little Green Footballs and even the Daily Kos come to mind.)

    And, frankly, I’m mystified by your animosity towards editors, which is expressed here and at your site without a specific reason why. What’s wrong with writing being improved? An editor is there not only to fix grammar and stylistically hone something to format, but to encourage the writer with an additional idea or an angle to create a better piece. If you’re saying that repeated posts without any remote grasp of basic grammar about how the pet cat yakked on the floor make for today’s answer to William Saroyan or Joan Didion, then I’ll have to disagree.

    What’s wrong with a fifteen year old LiveJournaler getting a press pass to cover a film festival? We give them out to high school newspapers. If a blog is articulate enough and is committed to the same journalistic tenets, then I don’t see why they shouldn’t join the party.

    So a blog that doesn’t fit into your “first-person perspective” paragidm is a mistake, eh? Well, I think it’s a mistake to assume that weblogs should adhere to such rigid definitions. Or that all of them are personal in nature. Certainly this one isn’t (with only a few asides).

    (Come to think of it, this might explain why so may litblogs adopt the first person plural. Maybe they’re subconsciously rejecting what has become a tired format.)

    And you still haven’t clarified what you find “old and tired” or “festering” about journalism. I’ll send Seymour Hersh or Jimmy Breslin on by to give you a hug. 🙂 For all of it’s faults, I wouldn’t describe traditional media as “festering” — unless you’re talking about FOX News.

  3. Ed: There’s nothing wrong with editors. But one of the things that’s awesome about weblogs is that they don’t have any. Editors play a crucial role in journalism. In blogging? None … unless you want them to. But if that’s the case, like I said in my original post, maybe you should consider a career at a newspaper.

    And, no, I think you misread me. I said blogs are “wonderful first-person voices. To expect them to be anything else is a mistake.” It’s the EXPECTATION of journalism that’s a problem. Can a blog publish good journalism? Of course! Should we expect them all to? Please for the love of God no!

    What’s wrong with a fifteen year old LiveJournaler getting a press pass to cover a film festival? Not a thing!

    I’m not trying to narrowly define anything. On the contrary – I object to people lumping blogs in with journalism. Blogs are – or can be – so much MORE.

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