I've started following Digital Journal. For a news junkie, it has lots of interesting stories and links — some links are even Canadian! (It's posted there on my Digital Journal blog.)
Yesterday I read an opinion piece on citizen journalists. The writer, John Rickman, was thoughtful and the following comments read like a conversation between adults. There was a little flaming, but no major fires.
On the downside, I felt citizen journalists were being belittled while professional journalists were being held up as almost a standard. I bristled. This is no big deal as I bristle a lot. I'm a bristly person.
Oddly enough, I didn't bristle at the positive stuff John Rickman wrote about editors. These people are important players on the news gathering team, and not always given the credit they deserve.
I agree with a great deal written by Rickman and with a number of those making comments. What I disagree with is the distinction made between citizen journalists and working journalists, those journalists lucky enough to be on staff at some media concern.
I got into the business back in 1971 when my car refused to leave Ontario for Vancouver on Canada's west coast. Stuck in northern Ontario, my travelling companion and I both got jobs with the local daily. Neither one of us had training in journalism. I had gone to art school and taken photography. My friend had a degree in English. I became a staff photojournalist and my friend a reporter.
I used to think of myself as a professional — a professional photojournalist. And I was. Then one day I had to fill in a form that asked if I was a professional, a member of a profession. It stipulated that I must be licenced or registered or have met some legal requirement to claim I was a professional.
It was clear, that as far as these people were concerned, I had a job and not a profession. My job performance benefited from my education, skill, and experience. It even paid well. Photojournalists working at the peak of their job range earned good money. Pay, skill, experience, and education all counted for nothing. The form was firm; one must have met a true standard, a measurable standard, and have a piece of paper to prove it.
Looking back on my years in the business, I realize that many of the best reporters I have known were not trained journalists and some of the best editors were not even English majors. One of the best editors I've had the pleasure of knowing had a degree in engineering. (If this editor were to read this, I believe he might be calling me over to discuss my use of the word "pleasure".)
One of the most interesting heads of an editorial department that I ever met started his career as a crank; you might even say a professional crank if you aren't hard nosed and demanding a certification document. This man was an educated, skillful crank.
The fellow, whose experience was as a factory floor worker, wrote so many letters to the editor, wrote them so well, and with such solid arguments that, when there was an opening in the editorial department, the newspaper hired him. Soon, he headed the department.
I've met a lot of graduates of journalism programs and many are first rate. The programs act as filters and yet I have met some frighteningly poor grads. What makes them frightening is that armed with a degree, they think they know what they are doing. They don't have the wisdom to respect an engineer-editor or factory-floor expert.
I am uncomfortable with the division between citizen journalists and working journalists. Working journalists can be citizen journalists who got lucky, like my factory floor worker or my friend entering the business because of car problems.
With so many journalists losing their jobs, there are a great number of unpaid or underpaid bloggers who are both citizen journalists and experienced old hands.
I like to think that, thanks to the Internet, what we are developing is group of citizen editors. If a paper gives us a glowing special report on a new urbanism community — a story written to meet a clear agenda — a citizen journalist may correct the paper, complete with pictures.
Whatever is written today must meet a high standard or soon be taken down by an alert citizen editor. When the editor-in-chief of our local paper claimed one thing he had learned from being a journalist was that one could not fry an egg without an element in Canada, it did not take 24-hours for a citizen journalist to prove him wrong.
It is interesting to note that the paper was offered photos of the event but refused them. To the best of my knowledge no one at the paper ever acknowledged in print that their editor-in-chief had made a factual error. They stood by his silly statement. If professionals can't deal with a fried egg error, what do they do when confronted by real errors?
In the future I hope citizen editors spike any error riddled stories.