What is journalism? An overview for the uninitiated

This post was written for my 16-year-old cousin Lola, who recently told me that she wants to be a journalist.

So, let’s start by making sure she knows what she’s getting into, shall we?

Town-crier announcing the latest news on the island of Terschelling, the Netherlands, 1938.

Throughout time and across societies, human beings have had a basic need for knowledge beyond their own experiences.

Long before the internet, the newspaper and the 6 o’clock news, certain community members dedicated themselves to gathering and sharing information about the events and issues of the day. (Think: messengers, town criers, minstrels or coffee house nouvellistes.)

And for the past few decades, the term “journalist” has referred to a person — usually a man, often without formal qualifications —who earns a living by writing for a newspaper or periodical. This educational video from the 1940s sums it up well.

In the late 19th and early 20th century, many journalists began to think of their craft as a profession, with writers and editors forming organizations, and university departments offering formal education in journalism.

Journalists also identified with a particular medium. The Oxford English Dictionary still offers a platform-centric definition of journalism, describing it as “the activity or profession of writing for newspapers or magazines or of broadcasting news on radio or television.”  (No mention of and/ors and the internet!)

Journalists’ identities have traditionally been tied to their newsrooms — or their respective “fortresses” as the BBC’s Peter Horrocks would say. Their daily task was simple: “to battle journalists from other fortresses.” (Think: scooping the competition on a hot story, scoring a high-profile interview, or being able to say “you heard it here first” after big news breaks.)

So, what has changed?

If we fast-forward to the state of the news media today,  we find that journalism as our parents and grandparents knew it has morphed into something very different.

Understanding journalism is now a much more complicated task,  as platforms converge and media-making tools become more widely available to the general public.

Long-established patterns of news production and consumption are being challenged by several forces, including:

  • Improvements in mobile and networking technology.
  • The digitization of content.
  • The convergence of platforms.
  • The reorganization of social relationships (from top-down to networked)
  • Changes in business models and structures of ownership.
  • The rise of participatory or citizen journalism.

Mainstream news organizations can no longer count on the control that comes with the scarcity of printing presses, airwaves and broadcast licenses, nor can they bank on the stable flow of advertising dollars, nor are they guaranteed the steadfast attention of increasingly disloyal audiences.

And so, as the media landscape changes, some thinkers have preferred to focus on journalism’s function above its form or platform. Here are a few useful definitions:

  • Veteran journalists and authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel argue that we need news “to live our lives, to protect ourselves, bond with each other, identify friends and enemies. Journalism is simply the system societies generate to supply this news”.
  • Michael Schudson, an award-winning historian of journalism, defines it as “the business and practice of producing and disseminating information about contemporary affairs of general public interest and importance.”
  • Similarly, influential communications theorist James Carey noted that “news is a historic reality,” or an invented cultural form that both comprises and reflects a particular “hunger for experience” that has tended to be historically grounded in the “changing style and fortunes of the middle class”.
  • Sociology professor Gaye Tuchman says that a news report is a story, which is not to say that it is fictitious, but rather to remind us that news is a “constructed reality with its own internal validity”.

Journalism has been called a craft, a field, a job, a business, an art form … and a few less pleasant things I’m sure. Indeed, it is all of these things for different people, and thus an object of debate in and of itself.

Where are we heading?

As this shift occurs, it is no longer enough to identify journalists by employer or platform alone. Few rookie reporters expect to work for one employer their whole lives, and many are developing a personal brand instead of depending on their newsroom’s reputation.

Many journalists can now write print stories, and make videos, and live-tweet the news as it happens, etc.

My 16-year-old cousin Lola — the future face of journalism?

They sort of had to up the ante, as new players are increasingly getting involved in the stages of news production long controlled by trained professionals – whether they are bloggers challenging the established 24-hour news cycle to put “old news” back on the agenda , or citizens committing “acts of journalism” before the mainstream media can get there.

Horrocks notes that the fortresses are crumbling, and “courtly jousts with fellow journalists are no longer impressing the crowds.”

I wrote my thesis on this, and let me tell you: the recent literature is a sea of ideas to re-think, re-vamp, re-position, re-envision, and re-structure the definition of journalism.

Outside pressures are now forcing conversations that have not been popular for years — but some argue that this period of reflection may also be an opportunity. Schudson notes that journalism’s public nature and vulnerability is precisely what keeps it alive, changing and growing.

Perhaps by necessity, more reporters are taking the time to think about what defines their work, and why it matters.

As internet visionary Clay Shirky writes:

“Because social effects lag behind technological ones by decades, real revolutions don’t involve an orderly transition from point A to point B – Rather, they go from A through a long period of chaos and only then reach B. In that chaotic period, the old systems get broken long before new ones become stable.”

So that, Lola, is a brief overview of this crazy thing called journalism. If you’re still interested, plug in your headphones and let CBC’s Ira Basen explain why your parents are much more surprised by all of this than you are.

Part One

Part Two

And when you’re done with all that, check out this blog I built for young people looking for practical advice: So, you want to be a journalist?

It features the advice from some of Canada’s most promising young reporters who call tell you all about the dilemmas, pains and absolute joys of these new circumstances.

Related posts from the Fab Files:

The enigmatic genius of Vivian Maier, street photographer

I’d never heard of Vivian Maier before yesterday, but now I can’t stop thinking about her.

Maier’s street photography is probably the best I’ve ever seen — but the reclusive Chicago nanny never intended for anyone to see it.

Her choice of subjects, her use of light, her impeccable timing … it’s just incredible to think she wasn’t a professional. But she was a genius.

I saw Maier’s images for the first time during This American Life live, a visual adaptation of one of my favourite podcasts, which was beamed in real time to movie theaters across the U.S. and Canada.

John Maloof, the young man who purchased thousands of Maier’s unattributed negatives at an antique auction, is now on a mission to share her work with a new generation. He admits the intensely private woman probably would have hated the attention, but was never able to ask her permission directly.

Maloof writes:

Out of the more than 100,000 negatives I have in the collection, about 20-30,000 negatives were still in rolls, undeveloped from the 1960s-1970s. I have been successfully developing these rolls. I must say, it’s very exciting for me. Most of her negatives that were developed in sleeves have the date and location penciled in French (she had poor penmanship).

I found her name written with pencil on a photo-lab envelope. I decided to ‘Google’ her about a year after I purchased these only to find her obituary placed the day before my search. She passed only a couple of days before that inquiry on her.

Maier caught fleeting moments like bubbles on the tip of her finger, and I’m not sure who could keep such talent to themselves.

In a world full of photoshopped renditions of posed subjects, these images are intoxicating in their authenticity.

With apologies – thank you, Ms. Maier.

October 14, 1968, Chicago. Vivian Maier. Maloof Collection 2012.

October 14, 1968, Chicago. Vivian Maier. Maloof Collection 2012.

Tiny school, big ideas

Welcome to High Park Day School, where grades are nixed, ages are mixed, and classroom sizes are capped at a dozen.

By Fabiola Carletti
Previously published by The Grid TO

Quinn arrived at High Park Day School (HPDS) with a strategy. The energetic eight-year-old, who had received many time-outs for failing to focus, had learned that sitting under a table and cradling a book would keep him out of trouble.

“He wasn’t really looking at the words,” said Aaron Downey, teacher and curriculum coordinator at HPDS, adding that the boy initially refused to read out loud—especially in front of his peers.

But last Thursday Quinn kneeled on his chair and, for the first time, sounded words out in front of a classroom full of older students.

“Your clo-th-ing i-dea,” he began, as Downey walked him through each syllable during a lesson on innovation in fashion design.

The class applauded its youngest member who, only months earlier, had insisted he couldn’t read.

The staff at Toronto’s High Park Day School, a small alternative school that does not divide its 8- to 13-year-old students by age, rejects the dichotomy between “good” and “bad” students, tailors homework to each child, and sends parents progress reports—partly written by the kids—instead of grades.

“[Students] understand that it’s not about being perfect—it’s about progress,” said Downey, who has taught in conventional school systems in Canada, Italy and Switzerland.

“It’s my job to figure out how a child learns best,” he added, admitting that the task has been easier with only eight students, who are so far all boys.

In designing their curriculum, Downey wove math and literacy skills throughout themed units. He teaches his students to ask open-ended questions, see the connections between lessons, and explore the topics that really switch them on.

“Traditional curriculum is so disjointed,” said Downey, adding that he felt a lot of pressure to compartmentalize and tick off boxes when teaching at other schools. “In a nutshell, we teach them how to learn, not what to learn.”

… continue reading