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The future of journalism? It’s astronomy

There’s nothing more that journalists like than the opportunity to talk about themselves, thinly disguised as a treatise on the future of journalism This is probably why the “debate” (which it isn’t – not enough listening) on “citizen journalism” (which it isn’t) keeps rumbling on and on.

Martin Belam sums up the latest in the discussion, which was apparently all the rage at journalism.co.uk’s news:rewired event too. Like Martin, I wasn’t there, but I can imagine the scene all too well having seen it play out often.

I think the biggest problem starts with the phraseology. The phrase “citizen journalist” is a loaded one, and VERY US-centric. It’s loaded with all that “citizen militia, defending your rights blah blah blah” stuff, and that helps prevent a meaningful debate actually happening. Manning the pitchforks, burning the barricades, beheading the king. All that goes over very well with a certain kind of techno-geek, but it’s really just a provocative mischaracterisation of what’s actually happening.

I’ve long argued that we should look at “journalism” as what it actually is: a craft. As a craft, it’s something everyone can learn – and you learn best by doing. And like every craft, some people will be professionals and do it all the time for money, while some will be amateurs and do it for other reasons – love, fun, or because they feel like they should.

Once you phrase it like this – with “amateur journalists” and “professional journalists” – a lot of the conflict that the “citizen journalism” debate engenders just goes away. You don’t get debates about whether the existence of amateur astronomers endangers the livelihoods of professional ones.

And in the future, the same pattern will emerge with journalism. Some people will make a living at it; some people will do it because they enjoy it.

My gut feeling is that the model of journalism as a craft will end up more like astronomy, where amateur astronomers are a vital part of the progress of the subject as a whole. Amateur astronomers produce vital data that the professionals use and build upon, as well as creating the odd “exclusive” themselves.

Of course, this idea – professional and amateur journalists working together to improve the quality of news and reporting – doesn’t make quite such a good headline. So I expect this tedious and counterproductive debate to continue for a while.

After all, what journalist – pro or amateur – can resist a good, conflict-based headline?

(Image used under Creative Commons license from Zen)

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