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:


Thesis hangover: a post for posterity

If you follow this blog, you know I’ve been neck-deep in another website (So, you want to be a journalist?) for several months. Short explanation: that site somehow became my thesis project.

I’m now finished with grad school — wow, it feels so good to write that! — but I’m still recovering from it. My thesis hangover was particularly brutal. It was not really the result of putting the site together, which wasn’t too bad, but more to do with writing a 60-page literature review that grounds the blog’s anecdotal advice in relevant academic texts.

Without getting into the details, here’s the breadth of what I researched and wrote about:

  • the current media landscape
  • the changing definition of journalism
  • the role of journalism education in adapting to 21st century needs
  • the professional norms, ethics and standards that guide journalists in their day-to-day practice
  • the relationship between journalism and democracy/the public sphere (ideals and critiques)
  • the role of technology (historical precedents/convergence)
  • the rise of participatory journalism
  • the reconfiguration of economic models.

Yep — that’s why I started calling my literature review “the beast.” Thing is, in order to appreciate the plethora of the changes young journalists are seeing in this field, it’s important to dabble in all of the above.

Now, I’m proud to say I’ve completed the project, presented the site my peers, and had plenty of great naps since flying back to Toronto. The word “thesis” no longer triggers heart palpitations and nausea in me.

So, I guess this means I’m finally ready to introduce the project a little more thoroughly, and then promise to start blogging about, you know, other things.

Here goes!

Screen shot of my "prezi" (interactive presentation) that walks through the main features of the site

1) What is the website, and why’d you do this to yourself?

“I can say that I have never seen a truly gifted young journalist go unrecognized. Maybe in the short run, but never over time. There just isn’t that much excellence loose in the world that news executives can afford to ignore it.”
– Samuel G. Freedman, Letters to a Young Journalist (2006, p. 149)

“So, you want to be a journalist?” is an anthology of original advice by young journalists, for young journalists. It includes 34 blog entries that range from general guidance to platform and genre-specific pointers. The site also includes a multi-platform resource section for those interested in further reading, listening, and viewing.

The project was inspired by my experiences as a teaching assistant for the UBC School of Journalism’s undergraduate new media course. Many of the students are considering a career in journalism, and have expressed interest in hearing practical advice from those who are succeeding at the entry level of the profession.

In response, I created the website and (insert elaborate explanation here) it ended up becoming my thesis project.

2) How did you chose the young journalists?

Full disclosure: I did not use a quantitative metric to gauge the potential of the participants.

We are a generation that is making its way forward during a time of immense transition in both the industry and in society at large, and I would argue that measuring potential is not a precise science. Still, I want to be transparent about this very important question.

Of the 34 young journalists featured on the site, nine were selected by me for their specialty knowledge, 24 were recommended to me by their peers, and one approached me with his qualifications after having come across the site. I have met 17 of the 32 contributors in person. They are 15 men and 19 women of various ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, but all have some form of post-secondary education.

Missing from this mural: Gerald Deo and Alexandra Posadzki (most recent contributors)

Each one of these incredible young people have demonstrated passion and proficiency, but all have done so in different ways.

Some have earned prestigious accolades early in their careers. Ex: Allison Cross and Leslie Young were part of the first team of (Canadian) students to win an Emmy award, and Jasmeet Sidhu has already been named one of Canada’s 100 most powerful women by the Globe and Mail.

Others stand out for their specialized talents in particular areas. Ex: Alejandra Hering has advanced experience in creating online portfolios, and Adam Avrashi has hosted his own morning radio show.

Still others have demonstrated incredible ambition on the ground. Ex: Jesse McLean, while still an intern at the Toronto Star, reported from Haiti after the 2009 earthquake. During Toronto’s recent G20 summit, Bethany Horne broke news that police had been granted extra powers .

Basically, my compilation is more qualitative than it is standardized, and is by no means an exhaustive list of everyone with potential. Off the top of my head, I can name several promising young reporters that I don’t have on my site. Ex: Jodie Martinson, Daniel Dale, Sunny Dhillon, Jennifer Yang, and Anna Mehler-Paperny.

3) What did you learn about your peers?

It has been eye-opening to read the perspectives of my peers — many of whom recast uncertainty as opportunity. As Samuel G. Freedman notes, “If you care about journalism and you care about excellence, you cannot help but feel despair when it or you don’t measure up”.

Without the promises of fame, fortune, or even relative stability, these young talents are choosing journalism in an unpredictable time. Many are producing quality public service journalism, and rising above the expectations of the  so-called “tuned out” generation. They are showing up with their sleeves rolled up, ready to lay the foundations of 21st century journalism.

Mark Deuze neatly summarizes the situation they now face: “The biggest challenge worldwide seems to be to find ways to educate and train tomorrow’s media professionals based on the need to retain, reconnect with, join hands with a fragmented, disengaged, and increasingly critical public in the context of contemporary democracy” (2009, p. 141).

This is our task as young journalists, and we should not take it lightly. Our generation is coming up through the system, and we have the historic opportunity to change it from within.

I’ve been inspired by the caliber of those who are embracing this challenge.

4) Okay, so what did they write about?

There are many ways to navigate the site (scrolling down and reading in reverse chronology, sorting by author, sorting by title) but I think the following categories break it down best. Enjoy! And please visit again soon.

Journalistic Mindset and Attitude

Strategies for Entering the Profession

Specific Tips and Pointers

Platform and Genre Specific Advice

Alternative Perspectives

Those darn kids and their democratic rights

My lovely "votingent" on the first day of advanced polling

“Are you all students?” said the blond woman with the clipboard, gawking at us as we waited in line.

On April 22nd, my peers and I were among the first citizens to show up outside St. Anselm’s Anglican Church, the advanced polling site for Vancouver Quadra.

“Well,” said the organizer in a huff, “this may take a while. You’re an anomaly.”
We furrowed our brows but nodded politely. The wait, the registration, the whole – uh, you know – democratic process was perfectly fine by us. We didn’t just take a wrong turn on our way to the campus pub.

The woman walked in and out of the church, reminding us a few more times that this voting thing can take a while. She shooed us away from the door so that “the voters” would be able to get in and out. (Don’t mind us obstacles!) She walked alongside us and checked our identification, making small comments that implied there might be a problem with this document or that oath.

I looked around for the hidden camera. Surely, this was some sort of joke. We were a group of young voters, not mutant octopi wearing top hats.

Although the woman eventually settled down and even smiled at us, I couldn’t help but think of Rick Mercer’s now-infamous rant.

“If you’re between the ages of 18 and 25, and you want to scare the hell out of the people who run the country, do the unexpected, take 20 minutes out of your day and do what young people all over the world are dying to do — Vote!”

Inside the church, another woman looked at me as if I was speaking in tongues when I mentioned the concept of a vote mob – a contingent of young people who get together for a non-partisan celebration of our right and intention to vote. (She pulled a bit of a John Baird on that one.)

Vote mobs have been sprouting up on campuses across Canada. Young people have unfurled banners with messages like: “surprise! we’re voting” or “apathy is too mainstream for me” or “impress us.”

Many of the vote mob videos feature students running through campus with signs that showcase their issues, which include everything from climate change and queer rights to pension plans and arts & culture funding. Oh, yeah, affordable tuition is in there too — but we’re not one trick ponies.

Other voices are joining the conversation, creating videos for just about every disposition. Raffi, a Canadian singer-songwriter many of us grew up listening to, tells us that we are “grown up Belugas” now, and we should vote for the Canada we want to see. Mr. Lahey from the Trailer Park Boys mocks us, saying us “shit weasels” and “dick weeds” will probably stay home (just a bit of reverse psychology, followed by alcoholic bribes). Leadnow.ca has an excellent website dedicated to engaging an informed and respectful electorate. In their declaration for change, they state:

It’s time to move beyond today’s political division and short-term thinking, and get to work on the shared challenges of our time.

But alongside the playful and positive encouragement, there’s also resistance and condescension.

Michael Taube, columnist and former speech writer for Harper, seems to think it’s appropriate to call us circus clowns and holy terrors. In his article “Vote Mob Mentality” he states:

Voting participation is way down in this country; in 2008, it hit a record low of 58.8 per cent. If more people, and especially more young people, were willing to vote on a more regular basis, the numbers would surely go up. But if vote mobs are ever considered to be a viable method of increasing political participation, I would much rather keep the numbers as low as they are.

Uh – what? What does Mr. Taube have against the joys of collective citizenship?

Forgive me for pointing out the obvious, but: not all older folk favour the incumbent, and they’re not all well-informed and mature. There are many extremely articulate and thoughtful youth — including the diplomatic Awish Aslam who was booted out of a partisan rally for no good reason — and not all the young voters* go for “fringe parties.”

(*A note on that last link: its conclusion is based on a larger poll of 1000 Canadians, but does not indicate how many of them were young. Seems far too small a sample-within-a-sample to warrant such a bold headline.)

Anyway, despite the condescension at the polls today I had a great time with my peers.

We had respectful discussions about the kind of country we want to live in, and pass on to the “darn kids” of tomorrow.

Personally, I think everyone needs to remember that all Canadians — regardless of age, gender, income, political stripe, etc — are worth more than the sum of their votes. Our destiny as a nation is a shared one. It’s time we started acting like it.

In the meantime, all we young people are asking for is …

To view all the vote mob videos click here!

Here are some of my favourite videos:

Should entrepreneurial journalists flock to grad schools?

Allow me to play devil’s advocate on this one: I’m not convinced that universities are the best incubators for entrepreneurs.

In the video embedded above, we see Jeff Jarvis sitting in front of a roomful of prospective students, telling them all about CUNY’s new entrepreneurial journalism program. His non-verbal cues say, “I’m the teacher, and you’re the student. Take our courses, learn from us” — and then, I suppose, come out free-thinking mavericks? Hmm.

Although Jarvis mentioned his openness to changing the details of the course (whether they meet on Mondays, for instance) decision-making power is still concentrated in the hands of the course designers. The would-be students were invited to take part by asking questions, but the agenda was already set, the program courses designed, and the available seats ready to be warmed. Here are a few things I wonder:

Lecture Hall by English 106 on Flickr

(1) The pitch and platform matter. Is this really the best they could do?

I doubt that the school’s target demographic would be inspired by this bland lecture format. The room was presumably full of risk-takers with ideas and entrepreneurial spirit, but did their presence matter? Were their responses really part of the event? I mean, it may just be an information session, but if CUNY is trying to revolutionize journalistic pedagogy, couldn’t they have re-imagined the first impression?

As I watched Jarvis pitch the program, I kept thinking about his book What Would Google Do? In it, he extols the virtues of free, open, searchable, linkable media but does so in a print format, available for purchase and decidedly outside of the link economy. (I’m a new media TA, and this irony was pointed out by several first-year students who reviewed his book.)

This isn’t meant to be personal – it may be systemic. As Clay Shirky notes, established institutions tend to show bias in favour of existing systems, which “turns into a liability in times of revolution.” In periods of transition, we witness the mismatched results of applying old logics to new circumstances.

In this case, an old-fashioned presentation to promote a cutting-edge program.

If J-schools teaching entrepreneurialism don’t want to inadvertently become self-parodies, shouldn’t they acknowledge the ways in which they, too, subscribe to the top-down tendencies of institutions?

(2) Do they know who’s in the room?

Rarely do we see classrooms that are pedagogical portraitures of the students that inhabit them. That doesn’t seem to be the point of mass education.

Really, why would entrepreneurial journalists pay tuition to sit in formal classroom settings as preparation for a 21st century market that no one can yet describe? Do they see it as an island of certainty in uncertain times?

Maybe they’re figuring out ways to destroy it from within. I mean, Jarvis does say the course teaches students to disrupt legacy businesses. He later laughs nervously when describing an open-source learning project one of his students is working on, as it may disrupt the in-class model that now employs him.

As Ken Robinson argues in an RSA speech (embedded below), our pedagogical structures have been modeled in the image and interests of industrialism, and built on the logic of the enlightenment. Schools are organized with a production line mentality.

Yes, Jarvis touched on how great student feedback would be – but bringing collaboration to the classroom is about much more than feedback. Entrepreneurs are more likely to be skilled in the divergent thinking (the ability to think laterally and see lots of possible answers to a question) and harnessing that talent should be built into the very DNA of an entrepreneurial program.

To refuse standardization means throwing away the template and rethinking education itself — which leads me to my last question.

(3) Will these schools be as innovative as they expect their students to be?

We may see more of these EJ programs opening up in the next few years (another was recently announced at King’s College in Halifax). I hope their founders realize that teaching this stuff shouldn’t be a matter of crafting a different syllabus, but rather rethinking very basic mechanisms. For instance, they need systems for assigning value to unconventional thinking, deviance, and even failure — none of which are rewarded in mainstream education.

Should EJ school be a place where you learn a new skill set, or should it be about an entirely different mindset? Will the schools recruit non-traditional candidates? CUNY mentions its ethnic diversity and the presence of journalists from under-represented communities, but what about the big filter called capital-E education?

Both King’s College and CUNY have established their programs at the graduate level. Is this too high up? Some famous journalists didn’t even complete high school (June Callwood, Peter Mansbridge). What about mid-career journalists who don’t have undergraduate degrees but do have newsroom experience?

Could EJ school be a place for those who question authority, ask uncomfortable questions, and propose ridiculous ideas? A place for those who resist classroom/newsroom conditioning, and the comfort and convenience of pack journalism? A place of possibility and inspiration, where professors aren’t at podiums and students don’t sit in neat rows?

Ultimately, my question is: are entrepreneurial J-schools just another place where you might go to learn – or do they have to, fundamentally, be a place where you go to unlearn?

What’s more, do these places of learning have to be associated with universities at all?


Full disclosure: This reflection was originally written to spark discussion in my media ethics and leadership class. If you don’t normally follow my blog, you should be aware that I am in graduate school for journalism. Clearly, I think there are advantages to preparing for the profession through higher education. Still, I am genuinely curious about how entrepreneurial spirit would fare in the ivory tower. I welcome your thoughts!


Whatever else changes, we still need a principled press.

Word cloud of the Pew's principles. The words mentioned most often are the biggest -- notice that citizens are bigger than journalism itself.

“Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.”

So says the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. But the center does not define the word in an absolute or philosophical sense. They mean truth in a practical sense:

“…Journalistic truth is a process that begins with the professional discipline of assembling and verifying facts. Then journalists try to convey a fair and reliable account of their meaning, valid for now, subject to further investigation.”

Although journalistic guidelines vary between nations and media outlets, the Pew Center’s  list has really resonated with me. I have penned their guiding principles onto the inside cover of my notebook.

I’m not trying to be cute. If we don’t stick to best practices, we’re likely to do more harm than good. We’re likely to contribute to the problems that we cover instead of helping our fellow citizens access the information they need to understand the important issues of the day.

As the new media landscape continues to change at breakneck speed, we have to get a grip on our values. We won’t always be the first, but we must strive to be the best. Our information should be verified, our sources credible, and our reasons for doing this clear. This is true in any medium.

I’m sorry to sound preachy. I’ve just been feeling a bit disillusioned lately, and I have to remind myself why I’m in  this. It’s not for the fame, fortune or the stability … it’s because I took the admittedly cliched advice to be the change I want to see.

The nine principles are as follows:

  1. Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth
  2. Its first loyalty is to citizens
  3. Its essence is a discipline of verification
  4. Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover
  5. It must serve as an independent monitor of power
  6. It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise
  7. It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant
  8. It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional
  9. Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience

In the original text, each principle is followed by an explanation, which are all thoughtful, succinct, and well worth a read.

For instance, here’s principle 9:

Every journalist must have a personal sense of ethics and responsibility–a moral compass. Each of us must be willing, if fairness and accuracy require, to voice differences with our colleagues, whether in the newsroom or the executive suite. News organizations do well to nurture this independence by encouraging individuals to speak their minds. This stimulates the intellectual diversity necessary to understand and accurately cover an increasingly diverse society. It is this diversity of minds and voices, not just numbers, that matters.

Personally, I feel that accountability is better enforced when it is embodied. As the mission statement of the Real News Network reads:

“We all have interests. We recognize that bias will affect the elements in a story we choose to highlight, the facts we consider important and the sources we decide to trust. To be human is to have bias. The answer is transparency.”

Whether framing stories with contextual disclaimers, or clarifying our positions in editorials, full disclosure is, I would argue, part of the shift away from top-down unidirectional media. In a media culture that itself overuses the affix –gate, the more upfront we are about our subject position, the better our readers can assess the message they are receiving.

The best journalists I know do this with humility. They examine their own power to influence others, and don’t take their audience’s trust for granted.

But they’re also imperfect people, just like everyone else.

Challenge yourself to be a better journalist in 2011

New Year's fireworks. Central Park, New York City. By Fabiola Carletti

Are you a journalist without any New Year’s resolutions?

Well, if you would like a back-to-basics approach this year, the good folks behind the Canadian Journalism Project (CJP) have come up with a short list of challenges that might interest you.

The list, published on J-Source.ca, is deceptively simple. As they note, it “requires perseverance, integrity and commitment year round.”  Each of the five goals is also a link to a relevant article that may serve as a source of inspiration.

In 2011…

  1. I will admit to my mistakes
  2. I will promote greater public accountability
  3. I will not plagiarize
  4. I will strive for accuracy
  5. I will defend press freedom

My  favourite article is attached to goal #4. It’s called “Teaching accuracy takes more than punishing mistakes.” Here’s an excerpt:

Perhaps this sounds a bit confusing: fear is good, but also bad; mistakes are bad, but also instructive. That’s exactly the point. Teaching accuracy is a multi-faceted process. It’s complicated, and in truth it never really ends. You can’t learn accuracy the way you learn to add and subtract. It’s a process and a combination of learned behaviours, not a matter of memorization or motor memory.

And speaking of resolutions, J-Sources has committed to regularly updating their  ethics section this year, which will help guide journalists long after the New Year zeal has worn off.

Meantime, the Toronto Star’s Sarah Millar has posted her own 5-goal list. She has explained each challenge in tight little paragraphs, which I recommend you read in full on the Star’s intern blog. Here are the basic points:

1. You are what you tweet

2. I will spell check before I post

3. I will talk to real people

4. I will find something to do that’s not work

5. I will join the conversation

Maybe I secretly love the number four but Sarah’s fourth point is my favourite on her list. I’ll quote it below, but I should quickly mention that I received similar advice from the Star‘s Roger Gillespie. When I asked him to name an important quality in interns, he said:

“We want journalists who have lives,” and added that he doesn’t like seeing young people camp out at their desks. I agree with him. If all we can do is talk shop, that’s as sad as it is boring.

Sarah’s topical point:

It’s not just journalists bringing their work home with them, people in every profession are finding it hard to leave it behind. A New York Times article from last August said multitasking is causing more journalists to burn out younger than ever before. So in 2011, turn off the BlackBerry and do something outside of the office. It could be joining a sports league, or starting a class in a subject that interests you. Whatever it is, it’s three hours a week that you can make just yours. Three hours where you aren’t on your email and on call. You’ll be a better journalist if you’re refreshed.

So, even though these resolutions may seem very basic, that also means they’re realistic. (Hooray!)

If you’re a  journalist, try them out. If you’re a reader, expect no less of your journalists.