21 February 1999

Date: Sat, 20 Feb 1999 20:10:19 -0500
From: Mike Godwin <mnemonic@WELL.COM>
Subject: Draft essay for the Media Studies Journal


Journalism on the Cheap

"I stumbled upon an important fact: you become a reporter by saying you're a reporter. No qualifications. No license. Almost no training." --Richard Reeves, WHAT THE PEOPLE KNOW: FREEDOM AND THE PRESS

Twenty years ago, it was too expensive for any but a few to play the journalism game in any meaningful way. To reach the kinds and sizes of audience that the traditional news media reached, you had to own your own newspaper or radio or TV station. Or you had to work for someone who did. Starting up an urban newspaper, or buying an existing one, would cost you tens of millions of dollars; a radio or TV station might cost a little less, provided you could find a licensee willing to sell.

But the computer revolution has changed the economics of mass media, including news media. And by lowering the barriers to entry, the Internet has created a whole new class of potential journalists -- think of this group as "the cheap journalists." And join me in celebrating their arrival on the scene.

With a cheap desktop computer and a connection to the Internet, anybody can reach an audience of thousands or millions -- the kind of audience you used to have to be a Hearst or a Murdoch to reach. Nowadays, all you have to be is Matt Drudge -- with attitude, persistence, and a willingness  to rebroadcast whatever gossipy anti-Clinton tidbits came his way, Drudge turned his Web page into a must-read for political junkies. (You may aim higher than Drudge does, but the beauty of the new medium is that you don't have to be any richer than he was.)

These days I sometimes find myself in debates with newsmen about whether the new generation of people publishing  on the World Wide Web qualify as "journalists." Perhaps not surprisingly, these professionals  are often eager to draw some kind of dividing line between what they do for a living and what others were doing -- often part-time or for free -- on the Internet. The argument takes two forms: Either the new online writers are "not journalists" or, if they are, they represent a looming disaster for journalism. Here are four of the most common arguments, along with my answers to them.

1. "How can they be journalists if they've got no editors?" Journalists who've put in their time at newspapers, working their way up, collecting clips, facing the demands of experienced editors and learning their beats often look with the disdain on the would-be Web journalist who's working out of his home office or garage. "How can Mr. Online Guy learn to be a journalist if he didn't go through what I went through?" they ask. "I needed the city editor to tell me how to write a graceful sentence, and I was a year into the job before I could craft a decent lead?

The assumption here is that only the peculiar process of apprenticeship that most newspaper reporters faced throughout this century can teach you to write well or research well. But there are other traditions of professional training -- often traditions that derive from wholly separate professions -- that may serve just as well in training the Internet reporter to do his job well. I often say that the best training I ever got as a reporter was when I was a graduate student of English literature -- misquote a source there and you flunk, and you're equally doomed if you don't know how to support your assertions with research and evidence.

What's more, it's helpful to have a little faith in the readership and in the power of the marketplace. The Internet is the most feedback-friendly mass medium ever to be invented, which means that those who publish stuff online tend to get direct feedback as whether what they're saying is elegant or persuasive. It's not always a smooth ride, but the writer who listens to his feedback tends to get better. And the guy who doesn't is the kind of person who wouldn't have benefited from an editor in any case. Time after time I've seen online writers with no professional training as such become more effective, more careful writers and reporters -- like stones smoothed by the river current, their styles have become more polished in the wash of public feedback.

2. "It will be harder to tell truth from fiction and rumor." Once it's possible for anyone to write and publish something that has the appearance of being "real" journalism, the public is likely to be fooled by frauds and phonies. The prohibitive economics of newsgathering operations has ensured that only the genuine article -- the true professional journalist  -- gets heard. Now that anybody can, in effect, publish his own news reports -- perhaps better designed and more graphically pleasing than the Wall Street Journal or the Times -- won't there be a sort of Gresham's Law effect in which all the bad, phony journalism drives out the good, true stuff?

The arrogance implicit in this argument is breathtaking, and there are two dimensions to it. The first arrogant premise is that the good, true stuff -- the kind of journalism that's essential to the operation of an open society and to an educated citizenry -- is the preserve of big media institutions, while the rotten, two-bit hackwork is what the garage-band newcomers do. But while we owe a great debt to institutions like the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal for best work they've done, we also need only read A.J. Liebling's THE PRESS to get over the fantasy that institutional journalism is *necessarily*  any better than an inchoate collection of net.yahoos. What's more, there's a tradition of solo-operator journalists  -- from Samuel Johnson to I.F. Stone -- that's older and perhaps more venerable that that of the institutional news media, which strongly suggests that journalism as a whole will thrive in the next few decades as more and more individuals with something to say come online and start reporting what they see and know.

The second arrogant premise is that the public are unthinking, unreflective, uncritical consumers of news. Given that the whole idea of freedom of the press is premised on the possibility of an autonomous, thinking citizenry, it's ironic to see how often you run across this notion of citizen-as-sheep  among working journalists. The reality is that most consumers of news have learned to be sceptical, at least to some extent.

The people who accept Matt Drudge's political gossip uncritically are the ones who'd believe those rumors about Clinton regardless of the source; the rest of Drudge's sizable audience, however, knows to take him with a grain of salt.

3. "These little guys will never be able to do what the big boys do." No Web-based one-man-show journalist has the resources to the kinds of stories that turn out to be socially or politically important. What made the Washington Post's Watergate stories effective was not just the abilities of Woodward and Bernstein, but also the willingness of a major institution like the Post to stand behind them in the face of withering political attacks.

I do think there's some merit to this argument, but I don't find it a killer. It's certainly useful for us to have large news media institutions that cannot easily be crushed by other political or economic forces. But that gravitas doesn't come without a price -- often the commercial compromises that a large publisher has to make (notably those due to dependence on advertising) meant that, in the era prior to widespread Internet publishing, important stories would never see the light of day.

Not long ago, I discussed this question with a professional journalist  in an online forum. His view was that the important stories required a combination of experience (on the part of a reporter) and resources (on the part of a publisher) that a one-man-operation could never match. "I'd like to see," he wrote, "the average Joe or Jane, say, go spend two months in China and come back with an exhaustive look at human-rights violations." I responded by noting that the average professional newspaper reporter doesn't get that kind of assignment either. Furthermore, I asked him, "do you suppose it's possible that someone who had spent months or years in China might publish something journalistic about human-rights violations without being employed by a newspaper?" The Internet, I insisted, makes that kind of journalistic entrepreneurship possible for someone whose only capital assets are a personal computer and story to tell.

My friend was sceptical: "Could Everyman have broken the Pentagon Papers story?"

"If Daniel Ellsberg had had access to the Web," I shot back, "would he have needed the Post or the Times? He could easily have been the first to publish, the Times and the Post would have followed up the story, and the Pentagon Papers would have been in the news just as much, although perhaps a year earlier."

I think we've seen only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what's possible for journalism on the Internet. It's not that I think the folks at the big news organizations should be job-hunting just yet -- they're safe for at least another 30 years, as we still need them for the kind of capital-intensive newsgathering and experienced analysis and synthesis that only the pros can offer. But the field is necessarily going to be enriched by the solo players who bring their own special talents to the game. Think about it -- our schools have been educating citizens for years to believe that learning about something and writing about what you've learned is a task that every educated person ought to be able to perform. I believe in that principle, and it seems to me a necessary corollary to it is that every educated person can be a journalist.

4. "What about fairness and accuracy?" The traditions of fairness and factual accuracy in American journalism are not exactly old ones -- they're mostly rooted in the 20th century -- but they're nonetheless revered. For most American professional journalists, these values are part of their self-definition, and we make a point of indoctrinating new professionals in these traditions, which have been codified, among other places, in the ethics code of the Society of Professional Journalists (http://spj.org/ethics/code.htm). What happens when there's a sudden influx of amateur journalists who haven't served the kind of ethical apprenticeship that those of us who came up through traditional media organizations have served? Won't those ethical and professional values fall by the wayside?

This to me is the single hardest issue facing those of us who care about journalism -- how do we inculcate ethics among this new, huge wave of practicing journalists, none of whom will have gone to j-school, and none of whom will have been mentored by experienced professionals on the job?

I think the answer here is essentially prescriptive -- we must actively embrace the new online journalist and proclaim him to be one of us. We must offer them support and encouragement, praise and constructive criticism, and, most of all, comradeship. Like Saint Peter at the gates of Heaven, we must choose to err on the side of letting people in rather than keeping them out. Only by evangelically insisting that the new breed of electronic journalists belong to our religion -- and by inviting them to join us and honoring their best work -- will we have the kind of influence we want to have on them.

We live in an era in which the commercial and political pressures on institutional news media are greater than ever, more likely to compromise our profession than ever, and more likely to lead to bad journalism than ever before. Which is why we should respond to the prospect of independent journalists on the Internet with hope rather than fear or disdain -- they represent not just the future, but our best hopes, both for journalism and democracy. Sure, individual journalists will stumble and fall and make the kinds of mistakes that today's professional news organizations might never make. But the Net also makes it easier to share our collective wisdom than ever before, and I cheerfully predict that online journalists won't keep the same mistakes over and over again. (Like the rest of us, they'll make helpful new mistakes!)

I'm trying not to be too much of a sappy utopian here, but if I squint hard enough, I have a vision of a future transformed by an Everyman Journalism that combines the best traditions of traditional news organizations with all the diverse knowledge and insight that the rest of us have. That vision is informed in part by contemplation of Gutenberg and the invention of the printing press.

Think of how much the printing press did to shape the modern open society, and how unlikely it was that anyone in the 15th century could have anticipated all the changes. Gutenberg's invention meant cheap book production, which put the printed language in the hands of the masses and led directly to the rise of literacy. Once you have a large literate class, you see the democratic impulse flourish - even a moderately educated populace begins to make judgments about its rulers and its mode of government. Cheap book production also advanced both scientific and historical knowledge by ensuring that valuable source documents are duplicated and preserved and (just as important, really) ensuring that those old documents were readable. Cheap book duplication made it possible quickly to build a cadre of scientists and historians who've read the same works and thus share a common body of knowledge. Finally, moveable type makes it possible for the past to speak to the future en masse in a way that the evanescent oral tradition never could.

That's what cheap books gave us. I think something equally monumental, and equally positive, has just been given to us by the Net, which makes cheap-but-powerful journalism not only possible but inevitable. It's a future in which the First Amendment's guarantee of freedom of the press becomes coextensive with its guarantee of freedom of speech -- freedom of the press in the future will function as a right for every profession, not just for the scribbling ones. We can either turn our backs on this development or try to contribute our best traditions to it -- and I'm just evangelical enough to think the latter is within our reach.


"I speak the password primeval .... I give the sign of democracy ...."

           --Walt Whitman

Mike Godwin can be reached by phone at 212-888-7811.

His book, CYBER RIGHTS, can be ordered at

        http://www.panix.com/~mnemonic .