It seems a storm’s a-brewing in the wake of the news rewired event. A fair number of the Tweets and posts I’ve been able to look at today have picked up on this. It would be a pity if this was seen as the dominant theme of the day. I thought there was a great deal of positive, practical discussion. But, at the risk of fuelling the debate, I think it’s worth considering what we mean when we use certain terms. Because I think offence is being taken where none is intended, and points that need to be considered are getting lost.
I know why people such as Andy Dickinson (linked above) get irritated when people say things such as “taking photographs doesn’t make you a photographer”. He is right to say that, actually, yes it does. But it depends what is really meant by “photographer”. My experience is that there are actually very few people who really think it is possible or desirable to stop people using whatever they can to produce whatever they can.
But while I, for example, can take as reasonable a photograph as the next person of, let’s say, a person I’m interviewing or a bus fire or a road sign, I’d be the first to concede that I am not yer man for taking a picture of the winning horse crossing the line in the Grand National. Or, much as I would like to, to shoot a fashion piece with Kate Moss. For those tasks, someone with more specialist skills, experience and equipment is needed. So maybe it’s easier to say “photographer” when we really mean “specialist photographer”, but there is an important difference in that one has a particular set of skills that the other doesn’t necessarily have.
This isn’t an argument to build walls around a protected guild, it’s an argument in favour of valuing skill. Most anyone can take a photograph, but most cannot take, for example, the kind of photographs for which The Times‘s Marc Aspland is respected. Marc Aspland is not necessarily more valuable than me, unless you want that specialist application. In which case he is, but ‘more valuable’ or ‘more appropriate’ doesn’t always mean ‘better’.
There are numerous other examples. I can lay out pages, leaflets and brochures, and work up the look of a website. I am interested in design and I can apply some design skills to what I do. But I wouldn’t call myself a designer. (Insert criticism of how this blog looks here). I don’t feel insulted not to be considered a designer, and I don’t think designers are Gods (except for my wife, who obviously is 🙂 ) I just recognise that there’s a difference.
Why does all this matter? Partly because we need to be sure we are talking about the same things – I often feel various people participating in this discussion are talking at cross purposes. But also because the debate about ‘what defines journalism?” is important. It is wrong to think anyone can be “stopped” from doing anything when it comes to creating and publishing media. And the opening up of the opportunity to publish and create is without doubt a good thing. But if we think there is value in the skills and experience and practices the trade of journalism has built up, then we need to be clear what these things are and why. It’s too easy to dismiss anything that values skill or even simply experience as “elitism”. That way encourages mediocrity.
There’s much that so-called traditional media can learn from new, and vice-versa. What The Lichfield Blog‘s Philip John described as “active citizens creating media” don’t even, as he eloquently pointed out, necessarily want to be journalists or “take” journalists’ jobs. But blogs such as his serve a purpose, sometimes because traditional media have withdrawn, sometimes because traditional media is not serving its market. If another newspaper starts up in a town which already has one, that’s not seen as something that ‘takes’ jobs. It’s seen as job creation. And yet the competition here is more direct.
The defensiveness in the debate often comes down to cold, hard, economics. But journalists who value their skill set and are paid full time to develop and deploy them shouldn’t really feel threatened by people who create media in their spare time, however diligently they do it. No doubt someone will see that as a dismissive description of those “active citizens who create media”, but it’s not. As Joanna Geary pointed out in her excellent contribution to the hyperlocal debate at news rewired, what can reasonably be expected of bloggers, users who create content, whatever, is an expertise in niche areas applied as and when it is most effective.
People in the media have always worked with niche experts. We used to describe the two groups as journalists and contacts. These days, the contacts have a more active and skilled role, and a greater opportunity to apply that expertise. And a good thing too. There’s still room for everyone, but we need to get our terms right, and we need to recognise the value of specialism. If we do, we’ve got the basis of a conversation.