If Astronomers Can Happily Share The Business With Amateurs, Why Do Some Journalists Get So Upset?

from the inferiority-complex dept

We were recently talking about some of the strawmen complaints that some (though, certainly not all) journalists put up in protesting the idea of "citizen" journalism (which should, more accurately, be called participatory journalism). One of the bigger strawmen is this idea that people think that amateur journalists mean that professional journalists aren't needed. There may be someone out there who does believe it, but most supporters of participatory journalism believe the two work together quite well.

Hulser alerts us to a recent NPR piece about astronomy, where one astronomer talks about the very friendly relationship between professional astronomers and amateur astronomers:
Jupiter's disappearing belt wouldn't have been noticed so quickly without those hobbyists, Beatty says. In fact, in astronomy, the pros depend on the amateurs to sound celestial alerts.

"There aren't enough professionals to keep track of everything going on in the universe all the time," Beatty says. "So in a sense, they rely on amateur astronomers -- who have very good equipment, by the way -- to actually keep an eye on things."
This seems like a much more reasonable approach. It also raises questions about why some journalists feel so threatened by amateurs in their space, but other professions are able to find a happy balance. Hulser suggests
"It's my sense that journalists have a more paternalistic view of themselves in comparison to the "amateurs" i.e. bloggers or commenters, whereas professional astronomers appear to have a longstanding cooperative relationship. Professional astronomers are humble enough to admit they can't see everything themselves and accept the help."
There could be plenty of other reasons, as well. My guess is that there is a general dislike of the "mainstream media" in many circles, so some in the press already feel under attack. So they interpret efforts to boost journalism with help from others as being an aspect of that threat, even if it's really an attempt to help. A secondary issue may have to do with the general standing of newspapers today -- with many in financial trouble, it's natural for those employed by the media to view an influx of others, who can do at least some aspect of their job, as a threat rather than as a resource to be utilized.

All of this does make me wonder, however, if various new journalism business models will need to take this issue into account, in making sure that they don't freak out some group of existing journalists, or if it just makes more sense to plow ahead, and let those who don't like it deal with the issue on their own. It could be something worth exploring as part of the Techdirt Saves* Journalism brainstorming workshop we'll be running on June 16th.

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  1. icon
    Nick Coghlan (profile), 4 Jun 2010 @ 2:34am

    Re: Re: Re:

    Could you further explain the difference between grant money and advertising money?

    They're both forms of sponsorship to perform work that can't be sold directly, but offers value to the sponsor in some way (whether its a hope for future commercialisation, access to an audience, good PR or some other less tangible benefit).

    I think you're also getting confused about the difference between "amateur" and "professional". The technical distinction is whether or not you're getting paid to do it (and a lot of online only journalists, such as the staff at Ars Technica, are indeed full-time paid professionals). The incorrect-but-oft-used definition of whether or not you have formal training in the task you're being paid for is pretty irrelevant (in the specific case of journalism, an awful lot of what you need to know to be a good journalist can't be learned in a classroom at all, so that formal training doesn't make as much of a difference as you might first think).

    As Mike is fond of saying, it can definitely be viewed as a business model issue. Many existing news organisations aren't set up to benefit from amateur journalism, and hence tend to see it as a threat. In contrast, newer organisations like Ars Technica build audience participation into the model from the start.

    That said, even the behemoths like News Limited are starting to figure this out. After major unexpected events, our local newspaper (a News Ltd publication) is pretty quick to put the call out on its website for amateur photos and video footage.

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