Amateurization is Journalism's Achilles' Heel

Posted in The Gnovis Blog

After having recent conversations with friends in the newspaper business and reading Akoto Ofori-Atta’s latest gnovis blog on the predicament of magazines, it reminded me of a lingering fear and, what I believe, an imminent reality: the demise of the profession I spent four years studying — and shelled out thousands of dollars to study — will fall to the hands of millions of amateurs spouting off inane stories, inaccuracies and highly subjective information.

Over the last few years newspapers of all sizes and circulation have trimmed staff or, at best, instituted hiring freezes. From major forces like the LA Times to smaller dailies like The Providence Journal, publications have slashed staff in staggering fashion. Under the radar, community and alternative papers have done the same. In some cases staff has been stretched so thin that those who haven’t been laid off are covering so many beats or editing so many sections, they’d rather be jobless. Editors are working without reporters, papers are relying on just a handful of freelancers and in-house photography is being replaced by a Web site called iStock Photo . Just as reporters are expected to be design and layout experts, Quark and InDesign specialists with no background in journalism are now given a pen, notepad and byline. And institutions have also had to increase their reliance on high school and college interns in an effort to patch the holes.

There’s no doubt the economy has exacerbated the demise of print journalism but I believe this has less to with that or one medium displacing another, and more to do with how we’re using the new technology. Amateurization’s first blow to journalism came from Craigslist, a DIY classifieds section of sorts that negated the need for a publication, an advertising rep and money to sell goods or services. Now readers are lured away from print news by the convenience and cost-free environment of the Web.

And who doesn’t love free stuff? The best part of a dentist visit is the free toothbrush and sticker. I once signed up for a credit card at a Celtics game for the promise of a free long-sleeved T-shirt. I also stood in line for nearly an hour every Friday at the Newport Storm brewery because the first 100 patrons received six free beers. While free is good, there are some things I’m willing to pay for — good journalism is one of them.

Citizen journalists with no proper tutelage of the trade are displacing the Fourth Estate, fragmenting the flow of information for niche audiences, operating sans funding for investigative watchdog reporting and amateurizing a profession that’s perhaps most critical to our concept of democracy. If the fact Joe the Plumber covers esoteric issues like the Israel-Palestine conflict and the federal stimulus bill for an overtly right Web publication doesn’t frighten the hell out of you, well, frankly, it should.

What if ‘citizen journalists’ snowballs into ‘citizen doctors,’ ‘citizen lawyers,’ or ‘citizen teachers,’ and other specialized industries? Something tells me we’d much rather pay for professionals with four-plus years of schooling. Why should journalism, which safeguards democracy, fosters community and keeps government in check, be any different? Why not preserve journalism as a profession?

Supporters of ‘citizen journalism’ will simply dismiss my arguments as elitist but we should all have serious reservations about everyday folks becoming the gatekeepers of information and the recorders of our history. The loss of newspapers goes well beyond nostalgia. Such a loss would surely signify the end of an essential pillar of U.S. democracy.