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Journalism 101: Forget the labels

January 19, 2010

“Are you a journalist?” asked the lady sitting behind me as I settled myself down before another session at news:rewired last Thursday.

I hesitated. I spluttered something like, “I like to think so.”

The expression on her face was easy to read. She wasn’t convinced.

I carried on with a pointless qualification. “I don’t feel wholly comfortable labelling myself a journalist, you see,” I said without the slightest hint of pretension, “I don’t feel like I’ve done my time in the bearpit.”

“You mean you haven’t spent ten years writing the obituary column.” she replied.

That’s the double-edged sword journalists grapple with. The very nature of their work demands labels. Telling a complex story demands the journalist understands complex ideas but can communicate them in an accessible, easy to understand way. How does the message get across to the wider masses? Little wonder everything needs to be communicated in bite-size chunks. There’s no time for anything else. And that mentality is bound to bleed into everyday life.

It is my reliance on qualifying every statement to assuage the guilt I feel in the company of more experienced practitioners, which represents one of the basic journalistic challenges I’m still finding difficult to overcome.

It’s not the only one either. My latest Journalism 101 assignment – to provide a piece about journalism.co.uk‘s news:rewired event for the College Blog – is a spectacular failure before it’s begun.

Not only have I missed the window of opportunity of a relatively guaranteed audience who might be interested in hearing (the event was very five days ago now), but I’ve also indulged my unorthodox creative impulses by producing a quirky video with no voiceover and seemingly scant regard for the accepted practices of producing multimedia journalism.

On that basis alone, I can’t call myself a journalist. I’ve missed the brief, missed the deadline and in a real world scenario almost certainly missed the boat too.

Just to make matters worse, I’m committing the most heinous of blogging crimes: I’m talking about myself on a website which sets the BBC’s value of impartiality at it’s very core.

But maybe there’s a niche for any would-be journalist to occupy here.

For anyone wanting to dip their toe in the water, news:rewired was the perfect starting point. The day provided a snapshot of what established practitioners and educators were thinking about the industry.

The dark ogre of the journalism industry hung around sessions devoted to multimedia journalism, social media for journalists, data-driven journalism and crowdsourcing. The often asked question may not have been said out loud, but the implication was that these were the core skills every journalist needed.

In some respects it was a depressing affair. Even the delegates’ handout advertised various training courses to tempt journos susceptible to the message. Multi-skilled individuals will be the ones who survive. Batten down the hatches. It’s going to be a rough ride ahead.

Kevin Marsh didn’t help either with his comment at the top of his presentation. “I’m really quite happy I’m at this end of my career, 55 and looking back, rather than at the other end trying to make some sense of the journalistic career I was about to go into.”

Heart-sinking as his comment first appeared, I did understand his point. I rise to the challenge. But it’s one of those comments which can haunt if you’re not resiliently pursuing the goal. It’s how you have to be. Oh, and you’re going to have to be an entrepreneur as well it seems.

Little wonder I felt scared off. Why bother even entertaining the idea of trying to be a journalist now? What would you call yourself instead?

Given the strength of feeling at the crowdsourcing event you probably don’t want to call yourself a citizen journalist. And despite @timesjoanna and Lichfield Blog‘s Philip John passionate defence of the art of self-publishing, you probably wouldn’t want to call yourself a blogger either.

Aside from the inevitable discussions which arose, there was something reassuring about the local media discussion, not least the fact there are a growing number of bloggers who are doing hyperlocal journalism. Is hyperlocal journalism the present-day version of cutting your teeth on a local newspaper?

David Dunkley Gyimah’s multimedia showcase did much to reinforce my hope that far from this being a depressing time to join the journalism bus, it is in fact an exciting time to introduce new styles of storytelling. Journalism packages needn’t slavishly follow accepted practices after all. Maybe there is some creative freedom after all.

So, perhaps it’s just the title of ‘journalist’ I’m still grappling with. If I fear the reaction of future colleagues if I label myself a citizen journalist (and don’t think the alternative term “active citizen” makes it an easier pill to swallow) and I’m tired of the shame of being a blogger, what am I?

Maybe there’s a simpler answer.

Forget the labels. Stop trying to pigeon-hole yourself. Instead, gather together the tools you need to use the skills you have to deliver the stuff you’re good at. Don’t try and see how your work can fit in with the established way of doing things. Most important of all, stop trying to predict the future.

Just keep it simple. Keep telling the stories. Let everyone else make sense of it all.

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3 Comments
  1. I tend to agree. Just do it. Or in my case don’t do it. (I wasted four years on a degree in print journalism). Once “degreed” I spent years feeling guilty for not living up to my potential and using my degree. But I can’t denigrate learning a trade, and thus acquiring the label. Still…

    Fortunately in this case I can’t dredge up the old cliche “actions speak louder than words” because in this case actions are words. But I do agree actions speak louder than labels.

  2. You have an idealistic view of big journalism – a lot, but not all, of it is rewriting PR and agency copy. This is not a criticism of the journalists themselves more of the organisational pressures that they are placed under. I am thinking of eg a BJ working on News Online when I say that, we know they come into journalism with great ideas and good intentions, but the reality is somewhat different, bar a priviledged few.

  3. “Forget the labels. Stop trying to pigeon-hole yourself. Instead, gather together the tools you need to use the skills you have to deliver the stuff you’re good at. Don’t try and see how your work can fit in with the established way of doing things. Most important of all, stop trying to predict the future. Just keep it simple. Keep telling the stories. Let everyone else make sense of it all.”

    You’ve hit the nail on the head. Once upon a time you had to aspire to a label, qualify for it, then be it. All old hat now.

    The people who make you feel as if you have to label yourself are the ones who’re out of tune, not you. Today it’s all about the skills you have and how you use them. My suggestion is, keep on doing what you’re doing and to hell with labels!

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