Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Fifth Estate

Last week, Brian wrote a post expressing his frustration with journalists and called for an internal association to "license" journalists. That post, which is further down on our page here, or can be read at http://homelessgrapevine.blogspot.com/2007/03/licensing-of-journalists.html incited a lot of comments (well, 8 comments is a lot for this blog) from the likes of Roldo Bartimole, John Ettorre, and others.

I thought I would throw my two cents into the mix here. Here goes...

I think the need for a journalism degree has hampered the profession in many respects. My experience with journalism classes is that you spend a lot of time doing facile AP Style book exercises and very little actual journalism.

From my understanding, copy boys used to be able to work their way up the system to become reporters, thus Jimmy Olsen (the actual Jimmy Olsen of "Superman" fame, not that Tabloid News hack Ed Gallek) was a cub reporter. Individuals who were experts in their field could also become newspaper writers later in their career.

I think this apprenticeship model and the ability to move upward in a company on merit were better than the current environment. As another newspaper man, Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain) once remarked, "I have never let my schooling interfere with my education." I think the current environment puts too much emphasis on schooling, and not enough on actual reporting ability.

Furthermore, as journalism has become increasingly professionalized, so have all the other jobs in the field. It's almost impossible to imagine a copy boy or girl working his way up to become Editor in Chief of The Plain Dealer without first being extruded through college, a bunch of lower-circulation papers in far-flung towns, a flogging by Feagler, etc.

There's also the instinct to protect one's own, as Mr. Ettorre mentioned, which has undermined reporting. In the old days, there was a friendly competition amongst reporters for the same paper, but there was also competition for the same stories even in small towns from other papers. Now, the competition is between corporate entities to see which can have the most profitable news department by spending as few resources as possible.

All in all, I would say that the blogosphere has been a boon to reporting, if also a huge pain in the ass to the reporters themselves. Sure, the public still gets non-stories and Tabloid News, and Ann Coulter, but many blogs have also appointed themselves as media watchdogs and "citizen journalists." It's a lot harder for news monopolies to control and spin the news when a million angry bloggers (right or left wing) are watching your every move.

My father and his best friend became friends on a precursor to the Internet: billboards and newsgroups. Even then, members of the group were going to great lengths to disprove each other's claims. One newsgroup member drove across several states to check out a book from a library to prove false another member's claim to have served in Vietnam.

I think, just as one essential function of the fourth estate is to keep government honest, an evolving function of the blogosphere is to keep the media honest. Certainly not every member of the blogosphere will perform this function, and some will do it better than others. But I see the benefits of what I call the fifth estate greatly outweighing its detriments in the marketplace of ideas. We would do better to empower the watchdogs than to attempt to enact another echelon of control within the journalistic community.

-Kevin, Managing Editor, The Homeless Grapevine

P.S. In response to Mr. Ettorre's concern that Brian is ignoring the Constitution, I would say emphatically that he is well-versed in its tenets. I believe you may be misinterpreting his statements. Don't forget this administration's tendency, and the tendency of all administrations (Republican or Democratic) to ignore the Constitution when it is "inconvenient."

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Anonymous Roldo Bartimole said...

Journalism is not a profession despite what some writers/reporters may like.

I didn't go to journalism school. Ironically, I graduated with a business degree.

However, I got an opportunity to work part-time at the Boston Globe while at Northeastern University in Boston. That gave me the opportunity to get a job at a newspaper when I graduated.

I think the best background for any young person who wants to be a writer is to work at a smaller newspaper where you have to do all kinds of coverage. It's the way you learn a trade, which "journalism" is.

That, however, has nothing to do with licensing people who write - whether for a newspaper, a blog or poetry to be read at a coffee house.

The right to be able to express oneself can't be licensed and people have given their life to oppose such a concept.

No matter how angry or disgusted you get with what some media outlets do, let's preserve your right to express your discontent.

11:43 AM  
Blogger John Ettorre said...

Like Roldo, I didn't go to journalism school either, nor major in journalism, nor ever take a single journalism class, in fact. I was a history major in college, which I would argue is the best possible preparation for the field, as it's all about learning to appraise primary and secondary sources, figuring out what happened and then telling the story in a coherent fashion.

And journalism is really a craft rather than a profession. It's best learned on the job. A brief story to illustrate the point. My first job in journalism was with a magazine in Washington, D.C. I got hired about the same time as three other young guys, all of whom had freshly minted journalism degrees. All three later told me they realized they mostly wasted four years getting that degree, because they learned way more in the first week on the job than they ever had in school. That's actually a pretty typical story.

5:03 AM  

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