I’ve spent part of the Christmas break reading Andrew Marr‘s book “My Trade“, which is a kind of personal history of journalism. If you like Marr’s history programmes, and have any interest in the history of media, I’d highly recommend it as his writing style, a mix of good research and excellent lively prose brings newspapers and newspapermen to life in a way which is fun to read.
Reading Marr’s account of early journalism is particularly interesting. The first British “journalists” – corantos, because they wrote about “current affairs” – mostly spent their time writing up other people’s stories, lifted from the pages of similar publications across Europe.
Sound familiar? In other words, they engaged in much the same work as most bloggers (and far too many journalists) do: lifting stories from other publications and presenting them to their own audience.
Marr makes a case for Daniel Defoe as one of the founders of truly modern journalism, though, because unlike the corantos he believed in being a reporter: in going, and seeing for himself, with his own eyes.
In a long discussion about whether blogging was journalism I once said that “journalism is picking up the phone“, meaning that journalism was all about the process of getting to the facts, not where the story is published. It’s a thing that you do, and the status of “journalist” is just something you get from doing enough of it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a professional or not, or where your story is published: journalism is about getting the story, and that means talking to people. It is, and always has been about people: not print, not the method of getting the story across, not even the sacred inverted pyramid story structure.
And here’s the thing: The irony of modern journalism is that we now have the best tools in history for “picking up the phone”. Search engines make tracking down the right person for a story faster than ever before. I can talk to anyone in the world via tools like Skype for virtually nothing. If a story really merits it, I can be virtually anywhere in the world in less than 24 hours, for less than a month’s average salary. And I can publish a story to a worldwide audience in the time that it takes me to write it. Defoe would have loved it.
In thinking too hard about the technology of journalism, in focusing on the likes of newsroom screens with Twitterfalls on them, data journalism, and multimedia newsroom integration we’re forgetting this basic fact: journalism is about people, and done by people. Talk to people, and you’ll find a lifetime’s worth of stories.