Professional Journalists, Just In Case You Ever Need One

November 2nd, 2009; 3:03 pm by Ryan Thornburg

Alejandro Alfie, a reporter at Argentina’s Clarin newspaper, had done his homework before he interviewed me there last week. Toward the end of a long interview during which I pontificated broadly about the future of news, he wondered what it might say about the future of online news if it is being espoused by someone who hadn’t updated his blog in about five months.

Chagrined, I told him I thought my disappearance provided a good anecdote about the potential future of news — many people will start blogs because it is easy to do. But few will provide the day-after-day reliable coverage that societies need to remain informed and that media businesses need to remain viable.

Perhaps professional journalists will be a bit like firefighters. Citizens may not pay much attention to them most of the time, but we’ll need to find a way to pay them just in case disaster strikes.

The reason I had gone on hiatus for so long was that writing a blog takes time, and I had developed other priorities. These other priorities have been providing steady and immediate income, and the blog does not.

So, yes, volunteer citizen journalists may start covering city council meetings. And they may write their own reports about high school sports and neighborhood issues. And many will do an adequate or even excellent job, because being a journalist is about having an inquisitive mind and not about a having a particular degree or license. But people get sick. They move. Their attention gets diverted to other endeavors.

And then what happens to the audience that relies on the citizen journalist for news? First, there would be a dangerous gap in coverage of public affairs. Perhaps other amateurs would fill the gap, but the audience would have to invest time getting to know another “brand.” What are the author’s political leanings? Does the author know what he or she is talking about? Are they going to be more reliable than the previous volunteer on the beat?

That’s a lot of wasted civic energy. And the more effort it takes people to consume the news, they less they will do it. Overall news consumption among 18-24 year olds has dropped about 20 percent in the last 10 years — the same time that their choices have increased.

Now, some amateur journalist will become professionals. It has already happened and it will happen a lot more. But one of three things will be true about the majority of bloggers — the ones who won’t publish regular, reliable accounts of public affairs, business and community:

1. They will go away. They will determine that their hobby is not worth the opportunity cost.

2. They will be partisans. Motivated not by financial reward, but by political power, they will continue to write for free.

3. They will be unusual patriots and humanitarians who continue to do good work for the good of the community for little or no reward.

Whatever the future of media economics may be, it’s likely going to have to be one in which a regular and reliable news report is going to be supported by people who regularly ignore it.

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