Battle in Print: So what is journalism, then? (And how do we know we really need it?)

Andrew Calcutt, 14 October 2010

Of course we could have a whole conference on ‘what is journalism?’, but for the time being, let’s accept the following working definition:

Journalism is an account of recent developments in the world, produced with the speed and accuracy required to produce the world itself. Addressed to the common interests of large numbers of people, this account is typically produced by a much smaller number who try to identify and supply new information in accordance with the commonality of other people’s interests.

Prompted by the coincidence of restricted advertising spend and expanded user generated content, debate about the crisis of professional, paid for journalism tends to focus on the financial implications of large numbers of people devising their own media content. Consequently, the debate itself has produced a prognosis for ‘journalism in the twenty-first century’, which is fixated with the substitution of ‘large’ for ‘small’, specifically in terms of the number of people involved in devising media content. However, this singular preoccupation obscures other developments that impinge on journalism just as much as the mass-ification of media participation, if not more so.

Relative distance from production

For example, certain parts of the world are now further estranged from production than ever before, such as the UK. Why would such countries want what could be termed a ‘productivist’ account of that world, rooted in a previous way of life based on participation in the production process? But that is just what news journalism has been historically. The demand for it came from readers who expected news journalists to produce a finished account of the world, just as they themselves were expected to finish the products they were paid to produce. Hence the opening sentence in the definition above: Journalism is an account of recent developments in the world, produced with the speed and accuracy required to produce the world itself.

By contrast, in the UK today we live in a marketplace where finality is frowned on. Finality means the end of trading and exchanging: commodity, personality – you name it, we trade it. Our existence depends on extending this process indefinitely. In this way of life, where finality is a kind of death wish, the journalists’ erstwhile dream of writing a definitive story - the most authoritative account of specific events - is turned into a nightmare of how not to do journalism.

But if this is not how it is to be done, is ‘it’ still journalism? Instead of assuming it is, on the grounds it continues to appear in packages still labelled as such, read the following two statements and think about their implied relationship with journalism, as defined above.

(1) Police arrested 20 demonstrators who tried to stop sales delegates entering an international arms trade fair at Excel Exhibition Centre, East London.
(2) Harmony Publications are launching an online magazine for arms dealers, which will ‘focus on their personal lives as much as their business deals.’ New launch Bellephon follows the successful debut of Protestors Re-United, a social media site for anti-war activists, also from Harmony.

These statements are invented, but need not be. They’re intended to exemplify two simultaneous trends in media today. The first is the continuation of journalism. The second is the movement of media content providers, especially magazine publishers, away from the established tradition of journalism, to the point where some titles can seriously consider dispensing with professional reporters.

Maintaining traditional journalism

The first statement observes the classic formula underpinning the news lead in an action story. In what would be the opening sentence of a pyramid-style news report, the author has answered some of the five Ws (Who? What? Where? When? Why?), but doesn’t try to get all the answers in, for fear of overloading the sentence. The author prefers the active mode (not passive), selects verbs which suggest plenty of action (‘arrest’, ‘stop’), and will have monitored the sentence to prevent it becoming too long (at 22 words, he’s only just managed it).

In form and content, therefore, this sentence exemplifies the tradition of news writing among journalists who are trained to continue this tradition. They expect to be paid for maintaining its standards, in addition to its form and content. However, there is something else which marks this sentence as the work of a professional working within a tradition of journalistic professionalism. That ‘something else’ is the orientation of the writer towards what he is describing.

First, note the writer is oriented towards a discrete event. ‘Discrete’ in that it’s separated from other events, and closed off from other conditions and developments that might not even qualify as events for journalistic purposes. The point is there was a definite event. The point of reporting it is to define it; to define what happened, or, at least, that much of what happened which defines it as an event. Hence, the ambition of the reporter is to write the definitive account of this event, and all manner of events.

Not that this ambition has been exclusive to reporters. Their ambition to define events is the translation of a results-oriented approach pursued by the various people involved. The police got results: picketing stopped. The demonstrators didn’t: they were unable to stop arms dealers opening for business. Having availed themselves of police protection, individual arms dealers may have got a result: increased sales, or they may not. Though they might have been on different sides of a police cordon, the common ground shared by all parties is that they came to produce a particular, singular outcome, up to and including the journalist sent to get the story.

Regardless of the specific event defined in a particular journalist’s report of it, when filing their copy most reporters are generally saying something else along the following lines. ‘They did this; I didn’t, but I saw them do it; and you, dear reader, can now see what I saw, or as much of it as I have seen fit to include in my reconstruction, provided that you have paid the cover price for the publication in which it appears.’

There are three sets of people arranged around the journalist’s report: the actors in the reported event; reporters and their colleagues involved in composing and disseminating the report; and readers, actors in their own lives whose actions may or may not be affected by the reports they pay to read of what happened earlier, elsewhere. Form, content, orientation, expectation: the above is a paltry account of these. But, it serves to identify some of their salient features as developed and maintained in and around the modern tradition of professional journalism. The accoutrements of this tradition don’t necessarily match the key characteristics of many of today’s magazines – not if the second of our two statements is anything to go by.

Content providers against tradition

Any publication which announces its interest in ‘personal lives as much as business deals’ is also announcing it will not observe the traditional distinction between public and private life. Moreover, it will not discriminate between the continuous processes of everyday existence. For example, between getting out of bed to go to the business meeting, and the identifiable events which have been taken to typify public life, such as completing a big deal and smiling for the camera to show the contract has been signed.

This represents a marked shift in orientation. Perhaps more than that, it represents a shift which casts doubt on the very idea of orientation. The latter implies the existence of events or objects and other people far enough away from these to be oriented towards them. Hence, to be oriented towards something means not being encompassed by it already. But if people are already inside continuous processes, they can hardly be outside them, oriented to them, at the same time.

More to the point, which people are we talking about here? In the model of modern journalism, there are three distinct groups: actors, writers, readers. But in today’s magazine making, there is a tendency for these distinctions to dissolve. The closer it comes to being a social media site, the more likely the people reading a magazine and the persons featured in it will be one and the same. Similarly, those depicted may have written themselves into the picture, especially now new media technology has facilitated the development of user generated content. Actor, writer and reader may be interchangeable if not identical.

Publishers have been trying to address such developments by devising a new model for magazines. The model adds up to three Cs and a B. First, the three Cs:

(1) Content – material that is interesting to the people formerly known as readers, often generated by some of them for others among them to be interested in.
(2) Community – formed from the people formerly known as readers by their shared interest in the material offered to them, and their participation in this offer.
(3) Cash – the means to monetise the grouping together of the people formerly known as readers, translating their shared interest into a cash cow by means of advertising, sponsorship, or other commercial mechanisms.

The three Cs are meant to be held together by a single B-word: brand. A brand is a fixed icon called on to identify the distinctive performance of various, continuous, intimately connected processes by a specified company. What’s being attempted seems clear enough.

What works for journalism?

It’s not clear, however, whether the model will work and for whom.Will it work for publishers? It’s not clear if arms dealers will choose to group around a social media site set up by Harmony Publications, rather than establish their own set-up on Facebook, Linkedin, or whatever happens to be the online destination of choice for a particular demographic cohort at a specific point in time. And who will sponsor Harmony’s new site if the community it sought to bring into existence is already communing somewhere else? Indeed, if this were what commercial magazine publishing is set to become, who needs commercial publishers or their magazines?

Will it work for journalists? If this model were to become ubiquitous, it’s not clear there need be any work for journalists, except to process content originally generated by the people formerly known as readers, or ‘users’.

Perhaps even more importantly, will it work for journalism? It’s not clear that magazines operating in this new mode are under the same obligation to capture new occurrences by offering equally new accounts of what has occurred. The more media are taken up with the interpersonal activity of telling the story of who we are already, the less call there is for the relatively impersonal practice of news production. Magazines may have been one of the earliest forms of journalism, but this does not mean their current content necessarily qualifies as journalism. For all kinds of reasons, both magazines and journalism may be losing their previously reciprocal identity.

This isn’t to suggest the game’s up and journalism is already done for. For the sake of a making a point and making it shorter, I’ve been too abrupt in my depiction of Britain’s alienation from the world of production. But the question stands, nonetheless: if modern journalism was once a product of the (then) new world of production, in the old countries from which production has since been all but evacuated, who needs journalism nowadays?

Hopefully the Battle of Ideas will bring us nearer to a positive answer.


Andrew Calcutt will be chairing the session entitled ‘Journalism in Jeopardy’. He is Principal Lecturer in Journalism at the University Of East London, and editor of Proof: reading journalism and society

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