“Does a journalism education still matter?” asked Professor Joe Banks recently on J-Source. He clarified, “The question lingers because of the array of digital tools at the disposal of the general public”. Among the other “yes-answers”, he argued that editors don’t want to take a risk hiring a self-taught applicant; therefore they would rather look for employees whose comprehensive and applied skills have been verified by the educator’s recommendation.
The opportunity for grads to provide the professor’s recommendation to an employer may look like an unorthodox approach to reasoning about the necessity of J-education, and I like it. That is one of the practical values of professional education. Are there any other really unique, unbeatable advantages of professional status over what amateur journalists can do? What does professional journalism have on its own, if “acts of journalism can be and are committed by anyone with an eye, an ear and a smartphone”, as Prof. Banks fairly noted?
A well-equipped detachment vs. haphazardly armed population
The rivalry between journalism and the Internet entails a very interesting effect. In contrast to the blogosphere, journalism is now often credited by many people with such qualities as responsibility, trust, professionalism, aiming to serve the public good, etc. Journalists seem to never before have been so decorated with such honorable epithets.
The explanation of such a sudden folk love for journalists can be found in the people’s desire to trust someone external, who is manifestly empowered to shape a news agenda. In the environment of many self-appointed sources, the status of all these sources is unknown, and the burden of selection of what is true goes to the consumer, not the supplier of the news. As Mathew Ingram once paraphrased Dan Gillmor, “You are your own gatekeeper, and you now get to decide whom you trust for information“. It is too hard to do; much easier to follow the avowed institutions. And people are seeking to find arguments in favor of the superiority of journalism over the blogosphere, although these arguments themselves are highly arguable.
If there is an imaginary contest between a journalist and a blogger, we may, no doubt, hand the winning prize to the journalist. But in reality, it is not a “one-to-one” contest. It is the rivalry between institutional media and guerilla journalism, between the organizations and the environment. Not only the nodes but also the connections between the nodes constitute the Network environment. And the qualities of the entire system depend much more on the qualities of connections between nodes than on the characteristics of the nodes themselves. It is no matter whether a certain blogger is good or bad at news production. What really matters is how the entire system processes information.
In the old media, the news is filtered before being published. On the Internet, the news is filtered after publishing, in the process of being spread. Every user for whom the topic is relevant contributes their time, passion, knowledge, evidence, and whatever they have into the process of sequential and mutual editing of the news. This process gives birth to a new social being that I call the Viral Editor. The Viral Editor is able to supply news no worse than the professional journalistic organization. The Viral Editor is relevant to its audience with 100% accuracy because it is constituted by this very audience. The Viral Editor includes all people’s evidences and competencies (including ones possessed by journalists); therefore it is able to investigate everything that is of people’s interest. The Viral Editor embodies the shift from “representative democracy” to “direct democracy” within the media environment.
Possessing any possible media skills, the Viral Editor poses a threat not just to the old mass media but to institutional journalism itself. Old media can improve the professional quality of its product and decorate it as much as they wish, but they have already lost their monopoly. And it is the monopoly over content, not content itself, that was always the foundation of media business. Media business was based not on content, but on shortage of content among the audience. These conditions are vanishing fast.
Are there any real advantages of good old journalism in the face of the Viral Editor? Yes, but not many, and they are not usually listed among these epithets with which people now praise journalism. I have been writing a lot about the forthcoming death of newspapers but now I’ll take a chance to defend old journalism with firm arguments. What is in journalism’s arsenal for its last battle?
1) Completeness of stories
The main advantage of old journalism relates not to the professional skills of its priests but simply to the technology of its material manufacturing. Physical production demands the packing of the news into chunks by the time of printing or airing, and that is why the periodicals are periodic. Physically predefined periodicity, in turn, predefines the most important quality of journalistic content – that is, the completeness of each piece.
Every story should be completed by the time of airing or printing. No matter whether the story is over in reality or not, the journalist has to put a period in the narrative. Thus, journalism cuts reality into portions. A journalist must be able to put a period. Period.
But reality is not sliced. It is streaming, it is arriving continuously. Cutting into slices is the professional violence over the nature of events, and this professional violence creates a convenience for readers.
The Internet destroys the technologically predefined “portionality” of the news content. In the Internet, news is the flow – exactly in the same way as events exist in reality. The streaming content of the Internet suits the streaming flow of events and doesn’t suit the human habits of “portional” perceptions.
People get annoyed with this flow of what earlier was in portions. What is the story in the Internet? Where are the beginning and the denouement? What, finally, happened exactly? No cue to stop reading. This flow supplies only endless waves of climaxes and oblivions with no ability to put a period logically. This reality is never complete. It annoys or even frightens.
“People love their sports and entertainment news because of the level of resolution that this type of news offers. Stories tend to have a beginning, middle and an end or clear next stop. Games are won and lost; movies are released and reviewed; stars are born and followed everywhere. General interest news, politics in particular, cannot always offer such resolution…”, as it described in the study conducted by the Associated Press in 2008, “A new model for news – Studying the deep structure of young-adult news consumption“, p. 48. “People really like newspapers because they have that finality,” Elisabeth Goodridge, The New York Times’ editor of newsroom newsletters, said.
Completeness in slices – this is both the customer service and the social function that old journalism can carry out and the blogosphere doesn’t.
2) Compressed panoramic agenda
Every media packs up a picture of the world into a compressed panoramic agenda within the typical template “breaking news – politics – business – social issues – cultural life – sports”. Different media apply different variants of this pattern, but what is important is the obligation of an editor to find and fill all appointed thematic sections with something significant, even when there is nothing of real significance to report in certain areas (like economics, politics, whatever). This obligation creates the all-in-one panoramic view of the world.
To get such a view in the blogosphere requires effort on the part of readers that is equivalent to studying the whole blogosphere, because the selection performed by the Viral Editor is based on other principles. It is able to highlight the top topics but quite indifferent to the fullness of the world picture. Meanwhile, it is enough to flip through the newspaper or watch half an hour of TV news and you get an entire compressed agenda (the principles of this compression contain opportunities for manipulations, but that is another issue). This service will never be provided by the freely flowing stream of guerilla journalism.
3) Professional status of the journalist
The professional skills of journalists, of course, still matter; while the others are still learning how to be media, journalists already know how. But, again, the high quality of the Viral Editor’s product is predefined not by the nodes but by the connections between them. The investigative, watchdog, reportage, stylistic and any other virtue of journalism may be also provided by a random or collective effort of the Viral Editor.
Professional status of the journalist is important for another reason. The status of the journalist works for us as a marker which shows: this piece is written not by whomever but by a special individual. A virtual sign “made by journalist” narrows the possible range of our presumptions about the origin and purpose of a text. It just slightly saves our time and efforts.
Such a role for professional status seems to look miserable, but it has a huge significance in an environment which is overloaded with self-appointed sources. As a result, text written by journalists generally has a tiny advantage in the very beginning of our reading of it in comparison with text whose authorship we know nothing about. The status of the journalist in the authorial sign makes us aware at least of something about an unknown text. Considering the huge mass and multitude of content flows, this small job of status turns out, in fact, to be an effective filter. It is the real meaning of the concept of trustworthiness for journalism.
This circumstance underlines the great significance of professional ethics in journalism, or more precisely, the great significance of talk about such ethics. Journalists and their associations should proclaim all around that they are special; talk about professional ethics is the best way to proclaim that.
4) Limited edition
Because of the same demands of physical manufacturing, it is impossible to print endlessly much on paper (as well as to broadcast on TV or radio). A simple physical limitation determines the selection of what to publish. This is how editorial policy has arisen. The Internet doesn’t have such a limitation. The same idea of “limited edition” is used in marketing to create artificial value for what is issued.
This shows up in the wow-effect: when a newspaper writes about you (or a TV program airs) – this is still “wow!” Nobody says “wow” when your name ends up on the Internet; this is not a big deal. Everyone feels that the Internet is manifestly limitless for posting whatever anyone wants.
By default, everything posted on a limited carrier will always be more valuable than whatever is published on an unlimited carrier. (Something published on the unlimited carrier acquires value only after distribution, if distribution happens). This is one more inherent advantage of old media.
All these technically predefined priorities of old media maintain the really unique qualities of professional journalism and are worth studying and teaching in order to preserve the profession under the impacts of the guerrilla environment. But there is one more upcoming threat to professional journalists, this time from the side of machines rather than guerilla journalists.
The time is coming for journalists to be aware of robo-journalists
“A news-writing robot created by Automated Insights is estimated to “write” one billion stories in 2014,” informs Matt Sutton on J-Source in a piece with the provocative title “Should media outlets tell readers the news was created by robots?”
The robot is already good at reporting about an earthquake or sports events, as it can process big data and find any interesting correlations. Databases will allow a robot to select, collect and apply the best practice of human journalists around the world. Impossible to compare a robot and a journalist, you think? Humans have already almost given up in chess where experience (data) needs also to be combined with creativity. Editors have already started debating the need to delimit the status of human journalists from the robo-journalist.
Strange though it may seem to be, corrections and apologies for mistakes and even the mistakes themselves will turn out to be the main virtue of live human journalism. In the near future, we will watch the increasing trend of marking media as human made, including the play around human mistakes.
The last priests of journalism will defend their parishes from robots, not the crowd of amateurs. More than this, the crowd will become an ally, as it is still the human crowd.
 Joe Banks. Media Musings: Does a journalism education still matter? J-source, September 04, 2014. http://j-source.ca/article/media-musings-does-journalism-education-still-matter
 Mathew Ingram. No, licensing journalists isn’t the answer. Gigaom, September 7, 2011. https://gigaom.com/2011/09/07/no-licensing-journalists-isnt-the-answer/
 Andrey Miroshnichenko. The Viral Editor as a distributed being of the Internet. The Manifesto of the Viral Editor. https://human-as-media.com/2013/11/13/manifesto-of-the-viral-editor/
 Matt Sutton. Should media outlets tell readers the news was created by robots? J-Source. May 12, 2014. http://j-source.ca/article/should-media-outlets-tell-readers-news-was-created-robots?utm_source=Newsletter&utm_campaign=f2e9264c8d-2014_05_155_13_2014&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_cee8abdcde-f2e9264c8d-92504989
 Paul Seaburn. Robo-Journalist Reports on Quake – Should Journalists Quake? Mysterious Universe, March 24, 2014. http://mysteriousuniverse.org/2014/03/robo-journalist-reports-on-quake-should-journalists-quake/
 Steve Lohr. In Case You Wondered, a Real Human Wrote This Column. The New York Times, September 10, 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/11/business/computer-generated-articles-are-gaining-traction.html?_r=1&