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Journalism is picking up the phone

My friend Danny recently reminded me of one of the smarter things that I’ve said. I’m glad Danny keeps track of those odd moments of lucidity, because I tend to forget all about them.

This particular gem came out of an argument we had years ago about the difference between blogging and journalism, and, as I put it, “journalism is picking up the phone“.

There are two points to this. The first is that journalism involves research. It means more than just putting down what you think about something or doing a cursory Google search. It means actually making the effort to find out to find out some facts about what you’re writing about, seeking out some experts and quoting them. For some kinds of journalism – notably news – that’s all there is to it: if what you’re reading is something that’s “said by you” rather than someone else, you’re failing in the job.

But it also implies something more than that. Saying that journalism means “picking up the phone” means that journalism is a social thing. Most of the job isn’t writing – it’s finding and cultivating sources, getting to know people, and getting to that point when you can pick up the phone and talk to someone about what you need to know.

As Danny points out, this means that lots of things which bloggers do are really journalism, and, contrariwise, lots of professional journalists don’t really do journalism. Opinion columns, rewrites of feed-driven news stories, lifts from others are all not journalism: there’s no aspect of “picking up the phone”.

That’s why I find stuff like the Telegraph’s multiple-screen news room and constant feed-driven input (direct into journalist’s brains in version 2.0) worrying. It encourages journalists not to get out, not to get to know people, not to nurture and develop sources. It just encourages them to rewrite the same stuff that everyone else is writing, never leaving that glorious high-tech news room.

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