Sunday, January 25, 2009

And An Answer From a Citizen Journalist

'I'm less concerned, after all these words and much thought over the last two days, about the ability to "brand" oneself as a reporter than the ability to make clear that one is honest, brave, tough, etc.'>

For a reference on this post, see the post below on citizen journalism. This answer is from Keith Ferrell, former editor of Omni Magazine (and a speaker at our Roanoke Regional Writers Conference Saturday). As a blogger, Keith is a citizen journalist. This answer is so good, I thought it needed its own post.

Dear Adam (et. al.)

And here I come, attempting to be less ... mercantile than I may have seemed this weekend. My focus—relentless and ultimately, I fear, boring, on the collapse of the commercial underpinnings of journalism and the larger, but related, universe of traditional publishing itself, rested on the number of questions I got about how to "make money" at writing, as well as my own ongoing awareness that writing is indeed how I have earned my living for most of the last three decades. But I fear that my focus on pragmatics distracted from the seriousness of your question, which was and is a fine one.

Citizen journalist, though, to me, needs to be better defined. Certainly journalist is a noble and longstanding profession citizen involvement—from Defoe to Mailer, and always with the example of Orwell and Zola shining for us—but there is a large distance between this sort of journalism, which in addition to in the best of hands becoming literary art of the highest sort, is most often activist, advocacy and polemical in nature, and different from the day-to-day point-by-point reporting which Dan talked about so well yesterday.

That sort of day-to-day—and day-in/day-out—reporting does seem to me to require institutional support, both for obvious pragmatic reasons (reporters have to eat, pay bills, etc.) and, crucially, because the institution of a newspaper, magazine, or news organization provides the absolutely essential "extra eyes" of an editor, editorial board, fact checkers (that one may already be gone: we had three on staff at OMNI and verified everything 3 times, including quotes) and so on.

Without that sort of support—and oversight, frankly—the risk is that the citizen journalist becomes Drudge or Daily Kos or Huffington Post: plenty of opinion, plenty of journalism (much of it lively) but not the sort of hard reporting, verified and confirmed by parties other than the reporter, that is fundamental to the society and the institution of the news.

Again, Adam, this not to diminish in any way the role the citizen journalist, acting essentially alone, fulfills. Just to separate it at least a bit from the traditional, and crucial, role that news organizations and the reporting they underwrite and oversee has filled. That role--here comes "doom and gloom" Keith again--seems to be vanishing. Take a look at is a sad place to visit, a witness to, I think, the death of an industry.

I know, I know, there have been recessions and slumps in publishing before, and if it dies, something new is going to take its place and is already taking its place.

What I was trying to say yesterday, and have been saying in speeches and articles here and there for years, is that this is that this particular recession and this particular transition is the first since the shift of attention almost completely to electronics. And that shift--culturally and, not incidentally, neurophysiologically--is itself something new. Our brains do not respond to words on a screen the way they do to words on paper; the processing works differently, the flicker pattern inherent in screens has its own effect on how we process information, how our attention spans and concentrative abilities function (or fail to).

What I think is dying, really, is reading, serious reading, and in the face of the onslaught of electronics--and I have written at or near the heart of that industry for two decades--the death of reading as a central pastime (or even common cultural coin and ability!)is all but inevitable.

I am wandering farther afield than is usual even for me. As far as the press goes, my concerns are twofold (at least). First is that the institutions of journalism and reporting are under the most severe threat we've ever seen at precisely the time when (second) the public's attention span is disappearing to the point at which many won't notice what's going and won't miss it when it's gone.

As for your good question though, the answer is simple, though the execution is tough (as are most things worth doing). Brave, tough, honest writers are always needed, and now more than ever. I'm less concerned, after all these words and much thought over the last two days, about the ability to "brand" oneself as a reporter than the ability to make clear that one is honest, brave, tough, etc. In this environment I think that is what will attract a following; the trick is doing so without surrendering to the cant and caterwauling that passes for polemic on the Web (and passes for journalism on TV and most editorial pages).

But the following, like the branding and, like the over-focus on word-rates and markets that Doug [Cumming, W&L professor] rightly chided me for is less important, ultimately and perpetually, than the integrity of the voice, the focus and the concerns the focus is trained upon, the work and the work and the work.

Do that--establish that brand for yourself--and the credentials may or may not follow. If they don't, it will be because the issuers of credentials are scared, as they always are and as they should be, of brave individuals with pens (however electronic the pen might be).

How's that?



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