Professional vs. amateur media: The big picture

The following is from our employee newsletter, which I reprint here to give our readers some perspective on how we’re working to serve you better.

Mine is probably the last generation that will have memories captured on a Kodak Instamatic camera. This was probably the only product where the developing process was as much fun as the final result. You pressed the shutter, the photo came out of the camera like a Pop-Tart, and you shook it until the image appeared on the film. Suddenly everyone could be a photographer, even if the quality wasn’t that great. Kind of like the state of journalism in 2009.

After more than a decade of working online, I feel like I keep hearing the same rhetoric. The Internet will allow anyone to become a publisher. It will create new forms of free expression. Traditional media is doomed. The recession has made that last point seem a lot more credible, but not if you consider the Kodak camera’s long-term effect on the photography industry.

In his book The Accidental Masterpiece, Michael Kimmelman chronicles the “artlessness” that followed the Kodak’s debut in 1888. “With Kodaks, the public could forget having to learn about messy photographic chemicals and camera mechanics,” he writes. “Editorialists started fretting about the impropriety of shutterbugs, set loose upon the public, snapping pictures of unsuspecting strangers, including women in their bathing suits on the beach (horrors!). Professional photographers weren’t too happy either; they attacked the new Kodak culture as a threat to their ambition that photography be taken seriously as art.”

Reading this reminds me a lot about what people have been saying about social networking and citizen journalism today. There is the sense that media companies can be undermined by popular bloggers, that information spread on Twitter can have the impact of an in-depth feature on the same subject. It’s all nonsense, of course, but that hasn’t stopped people from believing it.

It doesn’t help when we have some traitors in our midst. As he’s promoting his new book Free: The Future of A Radical Price, Chris Anderson has been quoted widely as saying that the death of many newspapers and magazines is no big deal.

“In the past, the media was a full-time job. But maybe the media is going to be a part time job. Maybe media won’t be a job at all, but will instead be a hobby” Anderson told the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel. “The question is not should journalists have jobs. The question is can people get the information they want, the way they want it? The marketplace will sort this out.”

Easy to say if, like Andersen, you’re secure in your highly-paid job as editor of Wired magazine, perhaps. To some extent, however, he may be right. For some people, journalism may become a hobby, just as photography is now an ever-more popular hobby thanks to the proliferation of digital camera technology and photo-editing software. But professional photography, whether for weddings, corporate events or even news media, remains a lucrative and marketable profession. Journalism is no different.

Much like the amateur who lucks out with a surprisingly good snapshot, there are bloggers, wiki contributors and Twitter users who manage to generate unexpected doses of original insight or reporting. That doesn’t mean we won’t continue to value editors and writers who put effort and expertise into creating comprehensive coverage of history as it unfolds. But where amateurs and citizen journalists (which we may better refer to as user-generated contributors) may occasionally look professional, it’s more vital than ever that professional journalists don’t let social media turn them into amateurs. That means calling sources rather than simply reacting to the news in a blog post. It means thinking about the subjects your audience needs to know and is for some reason ignoring, rather than following the online herd.

Technology is giving the whole world a new kind of Kodak Instamatic, which democratizes journalism in terms of production but doesn’t make all journalism equal in quality. It’s a matter of how you capture what you see through that lens.

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