About that “Army of Citizen Journalists” Comment

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The topic was the future of journalism, so I took a 12-year-old along to see how the world of news fits into his worldview. After listening to a panel of locals, Luke is not in the least interested. I’d be surprised if the meeting inspired any of the dozen or so students in attendance to set their sights on this new and changing profession. In fact, there was a serious discussion about whether journalism is a profession or an activity.

The panel, held at St. X and organized by the local SPJ, was lightly attended, maybe because U of L was thrashing St. John’s downtown. A handful of folks I know, like freelance journalist Cary Stemle, showed up to hear what Sarah Kelley, John Mura, Kathy Hostetter, Gabe Bullard and Shea Van Hoy had to say.

Luke found the discussion of getting a job in journalism uninspiring. Unpaid internships, low salaries, and no openings for anchors. To get a raise, you have to move, and you will likely have to start your career in Podunkville.

Though Bullard successfully used the word “kerfuffle” in an answer, and Hostetter talked about seeking people who had “the social grease and grit to tell stories,” the idea that working in journalism could be a fun and inspiring career was missing. Mura, after saying how little time he spends on reading clips and resumes before dismissing them, said there is always opportunity for the most ambitious. And then tried to figure out how to turn his phone off.

I didn’t expect this bunch to give any credence to independent operations, like this one, that exist outside the mainstream, but was a little taken aback when the blasting of blogs started.  Kelley expressed a mild discrediting of bloggers not affiliated with real new organizations, but Mura got my attention by saying this:

“I don’t see an army of citizen journalists replacing the industry.”

From Left: moderator Tom Peterson, LEO Editor Sarah Kelley, C-J multimedia editor John Mura, WAVE news director Kathy Hostetter, WFPL's Gabe Bullard and Shea Van Hoy, editor of Jeffersonville's Evening News

I don’t either, but it might also be wise to acknowledge that the role of citizen journalists is important, and for the students in attendance looking for ways to break into the business, that getting an internship at the newspaper isn’t the only route. Barriers to entry into journalism are lower than they’ve ever been, and anyone can gain credibility and followers simply by doing good work. And it’s not that hard for an enterprising reporter to beat the established media to an important story.

There was some high-minded talk of how important it is to get things right, and the panelists discussed all the safeguards in place to make sure things go out on the air that are right. And while we might make a mistake here and there (and immediately correct them), we still live in a world where primary news sources falsely report the death of a Congresswoman, where a newspaper gets the name of a small-town mayor wrong, and TV newscasts misspell Thursday.

Bullard, the only blog writer on the panel, acknowledged that the industry is shaking out in a way that a respected blog can now link to a competing news organization to give credit for good reporting in a way that no print or broadcast medium has ever done. That creates an opportunity for any story to go viral, even if it isn’t generated in the mainstream.

Mura also predicted that the era of free information on the web is coming to a close, saying he’s interested to see how the New York Times’ efforts to charge for content go. I don’t think so.

It’s more likely the era of high overhead in media organizations is ending. Layers of management and editors and huge buildings aren’t what produces quality journalism.  Sure, as the panel discussed, every news organization must have checks and balances in place and it’s important to check sources (through requiring three sources seems a bit excessive, Kathy). The storytelling that’s essential to driving home an audience comes from the individual doing the reporting, not whether or not you can get a job.

And it can just as easily come from an army of citizen journalists, like the one we’ve assembled here at LouisvilleKY.com, as it can from any newspaper or TV station.

That’s the message I’d have left with students, and it’s the one I told Luke over a meal at Chili’s afterward. Journalism, at its core, is about telling a good story in an entertaining way, while getting the facts right. And when you do that, it’s a pretty fun way to make a living.