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
    TtfnJohn (profile), 4 Jun 2010 @ 7:15pm

    Re: Re: Re:

    You're very good at deflecting issues by making false comparisons.

    I doubt very much that Mike was driving at the notion that astronomy and journalism are equivalent in how they get paid and function just that one tolerates, indeed encourages amateurism and the other has fits about it. The point Mike was making is that journalism could profit from taking on the same attitude as astronomy. That you disagree is obvious and you're entitled to that without deflecting the argument in to how each profession is funded.

    You do, however, illustrate a little ignorance at the craft of the journalist, as many do, by ignoring the paid amateurs already in their midst. These are people known in the profession as stringers. Some maybe grads of journalism schools, most aren't but their job, should you wish to call it that, is to cover, on call, events happening in the small centre where they live for the metropolitan newspaper or broadcaster until such decide the story is important enough to send in a full time, more expensive, reporter. Some, in fact many, stringers work for free in the hopes they'll be hired on one day. Some are. These are people paid, when they are, on word count, meaning the word count of the published or broadcast story almost always a heavily edited version of what the stringer sends in.

    Another interesting factoid is that the disconnect between journalism and the public began at some point in the 1970s when the craft became fully professionalized, that is that a person could no longer work their way up to becoming a reporter internally. The only way you could get a job beginning in the mid 70s was the be a university grad. Something that didn't exist before. Prior to that reporters and journalists were "one of us" and that too made them more trustworthy to the public in general. It also marked the emergence of large chains of papers run by "remote" control from a headquarters far from the publication location. The local daily had completely ceased to be "one of us" it had become this professionalized, remote money machine run for the profit of someone far away. (Good capitalism but bad for trust in the resulting journalism.)

    The next thing that happened was the advent of the 24 hour news cycle during the Gulf War. It suddenly seemed that it mattered less that the news organization had something vital to report but that it had something to report at all. Facts no longer seemed so important, what was important was breaking news which, by it's very nature isn't well fact checked if at all. In wars that's doable and, perhaps, necessary.

    In , most other places it is not. What we've seen is the old saw of "if it bleeds it leads" rise to prominence again and the rise of tabloid style journalism. More recently tabloid journalism it self has come into fashion.

    As a consumer of journalism I'm supposed to like this stuff?

    The Web's answer to this, however imperfectly, has been the citizen journalist, the blogger and the person posting YouTube amateur videos minutes or hours ahead of any major media company. No, these people aren't trained journalists, most often lack or aren't interested in journalism degrees and a lot of the time aren't even paid for what they do. But they are local to the area they're covering. They're one of us.

    Honestly one of us in ways that major media is not nor can it be any longer. (Mainstream media, incidentally includes those with huge audiences who pretend they aren't mainstream media. They are. Just as much as CBS,NBC,ABC,CNN,MSNBC,FOX, The New York Times, The Washington Post and others are.) Major media is no longer local nor does it give a damn about local.

    The reality is one needs the other, though. The amateur, who may not be an amateur at all other than being called that, slaving away on his/her web site or blog is needed by big media much more than big media needs him or her. Big or mainstream media needs these people to reconnect with the populace, the target of all those ads they print or broadcast.

    Sound a lot the the professional and amateur astronomers? Different reasons perhaps but the same outcome.

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