Dave Winer says journalism as we know it is “obsolete” because everyone can do it. Is he right? Yes and no. One thing is for sure: journalism is being transformed by the web and by real-time publishing. Whether that’s good or bad depends on your viewpoint.

old newspapers

There have been plenty of obituaries written for the newspaper business, most of which have a kernel of truth to them — but is journalism as we know it at risk as well? Dave Winer, a programming guru and visiting scholar at the New York University school of journalism, says it is. In a blog post on Friday, Winer argued that “journalism itself is becoming obsolete” because now anyone can do it. Is he right? In some ways, yes. One thing is for sure: Journalism is being transformed by the web and by real-time publishing networks and what Om calls the “democracy of distribution.” Whether that’s good or bad depends on your point of view.

Winer’s post was actually about the recent kerfuffle over TechCrunch founder Mike Arrington’s launch of a venture-capital fund, a topic that has received more than enough coverage already elsewhere. But in the process of talking about that issue — and how Arrington has never made any claims to be a journalist — Winer said that as far as he is concerned, journalism as we know it is becoming obsolete, in part because non-journalists can do it just as easily as journalists can. The bottom line, he says, is that journalism itself was “a response to publishing being expensive.”

It cost a lot of money to push bits around the net before there was a net. They had to have huge capital-intensive printing plants, fleets of trucks and delivery boys with paper routes. Now we can hear directly from the sources and build our own news networks. It’s still early days for this… but in a generation or two we won’t be employing people to gather news for us. It’ll work differently.

If it’s important, the news will find me

Winer is certainly right about the fact that the way we consume “news,” and even where that news comes from, has changed dramatically in just the last few years. For many people, as we’ve described before at GigaOM, news now comes from their social graph via Facebook, or through a Twitter stream — possibly read in a news-curation app like Flipboard or Zite, or through an aggregator like Techmeme or Memeorandum, which collects news hits published on blogs by people who may or may not even see themselves as journalists.

But is it right to say that journalism was a response to the fact that publishing was expensive? Not really. Newspapers and their whole business model, which involved becoming a mass medium in order to aggregate eyeballs and then sell them to advertisers, was a response to publishing being expensive. And many of the things that are most criticized about the newspaper approach to journalism — including what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen calls the “view from nowhere,” and the omniscient tone that many journalists take — are definitely an outgrowth of that model.

But none of those things are really journalism, which is why media theorist Clay Shirky says that rather than focus on saving newspapers, he would prefer to focus on saving journalism. And what is journalism? Everyone has their own definition, but I think it’s fundamentally about a spirit of inquiry, of curiosity, of wanting to make sense of things. It’s something like the spirit of scientific inquiry, as Matt Thompson noted recently in a post at the Poynter Institute. It has very little to do with specific tools or specific methods of publishing.

Random acts of journalism

Winer is right about journalism changing because anyone can do it, however, as we’ve also described a number of times. That trend, which has turned sources of news into publishers (allowing them to “go direct” as Winer likes to say) began with blogs and has continued with Twitter and Facebook and other tools. Andy Carvin, who has become a one-man newswire by curating news about the Arab Spring on Twitter, says he prefers to think of journalism as an act rather than a profession. So people like Sohaib Athar, a Pakistan resident who live-tweeted the raid on Osama bin Laden as it was happening, engaged in what Carvin calls a “random act of journalism.”

Instead of saying journalism is obsolete, I would rather say it as evolving and expanding — and I happen to believe that’s a good thing. What does it consist of now? Most of the things it used to, as well as some new ones: building connections with your reader community is a journalistic skill, and curation of the type Carvin does (and the NYT is experimenting with via its @NYTlive Twitter account) certainly is. And we still need people to confirm facts and ferret out misinformation when news is breaking, which is what makes Snopes one of my favorite non-journalistic journalism sites.

We need people who can interview other people and make sense of what they say — which is why Reddit has some aspects of journalism to it, and Quora does too (Winer recently asked why a newspaper like the New York Times hasn’t adopted an approach like Quora). All these skills and more are required — and the ability to aggregate things in a smart way, and the ability to understand and make sense of large amounts of data.

Will journalism as a whole suffer because some people engage in conflicts of interest or abuse anonymous sources or break any of the other so-called rules of journalism? Not really. Most of the popular newspapers and media outlets of the last 50 years have done all that and worse (yes, even worse than News Corp.’s phone hacking). Newspapers may come and go and bloggers may rise and fall, but journalism continues — not so much as an institution, but as a state of mind and a series of beliefs, and a way of behaving. There are just more ways to do it now, rightly or wrongly.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users ShironekoEuro and Zarko Drincic

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  1. What utter bullshit- to use a word journalists should use often.
    I’ll tell you two stories.
    There was journalist- they aren’t called that, they are called reporters- who was woken up and told to attend night court, which he really didn’t want to do, because a) it was at night, and 2) he really thought he was above that sort of thing, having been with his newspaper for a couple of years. Night court was for the new reporters who needed seasoning. But he went. It was his job. Once there he found duty counsel, or whatever its American equivalent is- wasn’t needed. Some people being charged had hired their own lawyer. That was unusual. His ears perked up. He went in and listened to their appearance before a judge. It turned out that not one, but five people had been charged with burglary. The judge asked one of those charged where he was employed. The man said he was retired from government service. What service? the judged asked. CIA, the man answered. The reporter, Bob Woodward, moved up to the front. So began the Washington Post’s coverage of Watergate.
    Journalists go to subdivision development appeal board hearings and attend civil suits where bloggers don’t go. They have no interest. That’s how it’s discovered a toxic waste pond is planned to too close to a school or a lawsuit will crush the rights of students, for example, from being able to sue post-secondary institutions.
    My second story is less interesting. I’ve covered so many of those meetings if I added all the time up I’m sure I would be owed a second life. You know how many bloggers and interested citizens were there to give their tweets or equivalent to the world. None.
    Bloggers and citizens with iphones will tap out for internet broadcast when things go bang and boom and how some celebrity is doing with her baby bump. They will give opinions about dog poo on their lawn or the price of gas or if there cul-de-sac is not cleared of snow, or if that movie star should have slept with that other movie star.
    But in civil courtrooms and never-ending municipal meetings where you have to be there for the meat of the news, you will need journalists, however they are paid.

    1. Last night on UK TV there were many minutes devoted to the Edinburgh Tram Fiasco. Bumbling municpal dignitaries tried to explain the latest U-turn on another civic waste of public money. The bulk of the story was a voxpop of citizens in the street by tramlines rusting away bemused that elected officials in large palaces with hundreds of staff again waste waste waste. To quote the people everything before the word But is BS so coming to your final paragraph … in these modern times there is no need for people to sit in fancy rooms listening to so-called politicians and judges chewing the fat. If necessary these people usually employ cohorts to generate, for example in the UK, parliamentary verbatim transcripts called Hansard and for actual live coverage a dedicated TV channel; and for what: knockabout slapstick comedy for the most part. Some say that there is too much democracy, with again the UK having : Parish councils, City Councils, Shire Councils, Kingdom Councils, European travelling Councils, unelected bands of Councillors; if only all the hot air could be recycled then there would be some benefit. I don’t think we need Journos or whatever to sit and suffer and for what – the Google soap opers is far more fun.

    2. “however they are paid.”
      And there in lies the failure of newspaper journalism and the hardship of the zero barrier to entry model of web “journalism”… +1 though, I agree completely that while bloggers and the sort do a sufficient job of reporting to the masses what has already been reported on, there needs to be reporters with beats and a passion to get to the bottom of something that doesn’t sit right.

    3. Wordbeeps

      The general public’s trust in journalists has diminished greatly since Watergate. Findings from a recent trust barometer show that people are trusting their peers more than ever which is partly due to the rise of citizen journalism.

      And if that doesn’t convince you perhaps you can explain wikileaks and the global interest it has spawned on and offline……

    4. couldn’t have said it better myself—and I’m a journalist too.

  2. For me, Journalism (with a capital J) died sometime around 10 years ago, with 9/11. In the midst of media consolidation and in the opening days of the broadband revolution came an event that shook up the country, including Journalists. Rolling into 2002 the Bush Administration revved up the gears of war and Journalists either cheered it on or did nothing (yes, I know there are exceptions).

    The watchdog role I had been taught was Journalism’s role had been set aside somewhere.

    This would have been forgivable if Journalism had owned the mistake and gotten back to its roots. Some folks did. But nearly all just went about their he-said-she-said and view-from-nowhere business. Meanwhile, Journalists were given the boot through mergers, acquisitions, universal access (redundancy), and just plain competition. That put a whole group on notice that their corporate masters would kick them out if they got out of line. So much for being a watchdog. The victory of Republican media (via Ailes and Murdoch) sealed the deal, as Journalists seeking to be “objective” joined the Church of the Savvy and walked away from their better selves.

    We’ve seen some fascinating new business and editorial models (nonprofit news, HuffPo, TPM, ProPublica, etc.), and the rise of non-professional journalism, a combination of which may help find a new way forward. And thank God that Jay Rosen is charting what’s broken and what can be fixed and Clay Shirky is explaining just what the hell is going on in a broader sense.

    But Journalism with a capital J? Long dead in the ways I was taught about it. There are vestiges and shadows of it today, but nothing terribly serious, nothing with meat on the bones.

    We need a new grammar for journalism, one shared by pros, semi-pros, and active amateurs alike. Kind of like Astronomy — agreed-upon rules and nomenclatures in which everyone can participate and everyone can cross-validate (or invalidate).

    Rosen has introduced some of the elements very recently. We’re hopefully approaching a new journalism now.

    1. Really? Dead? That sounds a touch extreme.

      I read TPM, Juan Cole, Calculated Risk, as well as a few mainstays like the Economist. Personally, it is a search for quality, and one of the reasons I ditched my television nearly 20 years ago. I’m just tired of reading crap.

      This is an interesting issue where the truth lies somewhere between both positions. The landscape is changing. The internet is a major change in distribution. But, effective communication is as rare as it always was.

  3. I challenge you to name the top five ‘journalists’ working today. It’s hard because people have lost the skill it takes to be a ‘journalist’ … AND, our education system has almost no curricula to support studying to become a journalist !!! It’s real disappointing that our analytic abilities have vanished, with no one replacing them for the next generations. 140 characters and you’re done…. True insanity.

  4. No, it’s not obsolete. There are some simple flaws in his logic. Sure, almost everyone can write and almost everyone will. But as newspaper editors can tell us, there’s a huge gap between people who can write and those skilled at unearthing what’s really going on, accurately and quickly. Also, look at the $ revenues in traditional media and it’s not over yet. Pick up the daily papers this morning and they don’t seem to be hurting, in page count or revenues. Online reading trends as well, show there’s a wide breadth of sources, but newsrooms remain key content generators on all fronts. So rumours of journalism’s death are greatly exaggerated . . .

  5. thanks

  6. True. Dinosaurs are also extinct…

    When new disruptive technologies come along, they have a disruptive, large impact on things, though over time they are assimilated in some fashion, strengthening the corresponding institution, in this case Journalism. The ability of many to contribute to truth of any issue that arises is s good thing. Still that impact has to be filtered down to what is actually truthful and helpful. Over time, standards will emerge for bloggers and others that will enable Journalism to thrive in new ways. Just now we are in the period of the breakout of the masses in contributing to that truth of knowledge. Somewhere down the line we will need to develop methods that turn hard opinions into harder truths. And yet these developments, these many-sided contributions from a myriad of source indicate the dawn of a Golden Age for Truth; so long as methods are developed to turn the dross of infinite opinions into the gold of the many-sided truth of things.

  8. Journalism on GigaOm is dead.

  9. The question isn’t whether journalism is dead. It was never very good to begin with. Topic du jour stories, parrot stories, stories with siomple missing info and yellow/slanted/opinionated journalism has always existed. Just todays brain dead citizen brings out the worst of it because the audience buys it.

    The question should be whether investigative journalism is dead, reporters with the sharp questions that are two steps ahead of their interview subject, that’s the real loss. Yep, dead and now long gone.

  10. Maybe the answer to the future of journalism lies in its past. Didn’t the earliest journalism consist of recounting the just-finished hunt to members of the tribe gathered around the fire? If so, there’s no reason to believe that journalism won’t continue to morph to suit the times.

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