The Rise of the Journalist as a Door to Door Salesman?

By Henry Peirse - 04 Mar 2013

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You’ve got to hand it to our chief Henry Peirse, he’s no word mincer. Last week his tweet looked pretty much like a grumpy declaration of war: “Anybody that thinks the #futureofnews #journalism is about training reporters and journalists to be entrepreneurs is a moron”, said Henry, and all jumped in the ditches and poked their noses out to see who bites, and when will the first shot be fired.

Markham Nolan picked up the challenge, and a rather cordial debate, especially considering Markham’s position on the entrepreneurial nature of journalism in our time, ensued. “Ever heard the maxim ‘you’re only as good as your last article’?” asks Markham in his blog piece on the debate, “As a journalist, your last article will often get you your next commission, so you’re always selling. Especially if you’re a freelancer – it’s a game of pitch-and-follow. Chase the story, chase the invoice. To say that journalists shouldn’t be entrepreneurs forgets that there’s a large chunk of self-employed journos out there making a living entrepreneurially. Some are more entrepreneurial than others, of course.”

There’s no doubt that the collapse of staff jobs as we knew them, especially in media has created a world of freelancers who need to make their living on as story-to-story basis. I’d argue that while this reality is to be acknowledged, there’s not much about it to glorify. It rolled the production costs and the risk taking in the news-making business over from the deeper pocket of the news organisations to the emptier one of now freelance correspondents.

It created a reality where newspapers and broadcasters buy stories off journalists, or just chase passers-by, whom they don’t know. While this reality should be identified and not ignored by people in the industry who educate the next generation of reporters (that’s, by definition, “everybody” in media), there is absolutely no call for presenting it as an ideal state of things, even to be aspired to, or to stop attempting to help journalists “outsource” their marketing tasks.

The demands on journalists in the 21st century are immense, in terms of the demands from them. They are still expected to be able to find the news, write good copy (proof readers and editors are another expense the newspapers have cut down on), find the best interviewees and get their hands on exclusive pieces of information, but they are also expected to have full command of all relevant technologies: social media, blogging, tweeting, shooting video, editing video, shooting and posting stills, recording audio and video packages.

And as the required skills list grows, the rewards become less and less secure. From a world of bureaus, salaries and expenses accounts, we now have one in which a journalist is expected to summon themselves on their own expense to where the news break, when it breaks, compete with an army of others just like them for broadcasters and newspapers’ favours. Then to start applying their marvelous above mentioned tool-kit while not forgetting to be entrepreneurial, otherwise they might find themselves out of pocket.

At the same time the sense of mission in journalism is under constant attack from the forces of the world of business. The separation between the editorial and the commercial has always been a matter of friction between management and editors, but it was always clear that its sacredness is the ethos that guarantees the public’s trust. Now it seems to be subject to constant manipulation. In a long article about “branding” in journalism Lewis Dvorkin of Forbes seems to swear equal allegiances to both in equal measures: “The mission of journalism is to inform, and that requires observation, selection and interpretation, with all the biases that entails. The business of journalism is to provide marketing partners with new ways to reach consumers. BrandVoice aims to achieve both”.

Carrying the burdens of selling their “brand” and their work to media vehicles which in the past used to pay their salaries, making their mission worthwhile to commercial bodies – all this leaves very little time for journalists to research stories, chase sources, cross-check facts, learn background and content, interview, DO the journalism, BE journalists.

True, there was always an element of sales involved in journalism. You had to convince your Editor of the validity and importance of your story and they in turn had to market it to the editor-in-chief whose job it was to defend it from the wrath of the management and its commercial interests. This model, while imperfect, ensured that the professional side of the story was measured and estimated by at least three professionals, without any commercial interest legitimately interfering in it.

But turning every journalist into an entrepreneur, a machine aiming to sell a popular tale in order to survive, or sex up a scandal into an appealing form, and viewing the skills involved in that as more important than the basic of journalism is not a recipe for healing journalism. It is a cynical plot by the business of media to make more money, and spend less. Journalism has nothing to benefit from turning into a gladiator arena for thousands of iPhone carrying, business and marketing trained, sales agents.
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