First, let me state the obvious: The high-water days of journalism as many of us have known it are over. Now here’s a question: What should we do about it?
Think about what being published in a newspaper or magazine can give to a writer:
- A paycheck
- A separation between editorial decisions and financial ones that brings the freedom to not write with an eye to pleasing anyone except one’s editor
- An audience
- Legitimacy in the eyes of the reading public
- Legitimacy in the eyes of interview subjects
And what have publications meant to readers?
- Predictability of publication schedule (daily newspaper, weekly magazine, etc.)
- A standard of quality (articles will be subject to copy editing and fact checking)
- A standard of trustworthiness (the reader could trust that the journalist was writing an honest reading of the facts and wasn’t being “paid off”)
- In some cases, an image to aspire to or a community to belong to (business executives read the Wall Street Journal, entertainment executives read Variety, smart people read the New York Times, adventurers read Outdoors, and so forth)
Now, some or even all of these values could and have been breached. But at least the ideal was there.
What do we have now? A push-button publishing world has given us millions if not hundreds of millions of websites, which include but are not limited to blogs. That presents a number of problems.
For the writer, the proliferation of the Internet has meant:
- Reduced income–or no income
- Loss of “guaranteed” access to readers, who are now free to find trusted authors from anywhere in the world.
For the reader, the proliferation of the Internet has meant:
- Freedom to choose and specialize
- Needle in the haystack: how to identify the best websites? Search engines are useful but aren’t foolproof. There may be no financial cost to accessing information on the Internet (sometimes even a connection is free), but there are costs in terms of time.
- The problem of knowing who is giving the straight scoop and who is on the take.
So, what should we do? We should certify each other as trusted sources. This is one way of addressing one question of our new world: How do we establish credibility? Let’s frame this question by looking at everybody’s buzzword, “blog.”
A blog is either a column within a larger website/publication (such as http://blog.nj.com/skiing/index.html, written by NASJA member Martin Griff), or it defines the publication (see for example, http://www.shayboarder.com/, written by Shannon Johnson, who is not a member).
Bloggers (like any writer) can gain credibility through the masthead (see Megan McArdle: http://www.theatlantic.com/megan-mcardle/) or through their own site (see Glenn Reynolds: http://pajamasmedia.com/instapundit/).
Readership is one factor in determining credibility–if you’ve got eyeballs, people start paying attention to you. But it’s not the only one, as some publications are sheer fantasy (see: World Weekly News) and others are legitimate authorities in the field but have microscopic readership (see: The New Republic, Commentary.)
To a large extent, NASJA members have lost the “cover” that mastheads and editors give, since they’ve lost their outlets. On the subject of self-published authors, perhaps it’s time for NASJA to embrace them by establishing some sort of internal credentialing mechanism. While there may be a subjective element to the credentials (much as the famous definition of obscenity), here’s a start:
* A minimum frequency / word count in a season. I believe 5 articles work right now. So how about 5 articles, self-published or not, blog entry or not, that have a minimum of 500 words each?
* I think there may even be a place for prolific Twitter users–say, 50 “Tweets” in a season. After all, the business of journalism is to impart news, opinions, features to people. A collection of Tweets doesn’t have the elegance of a feature article, but it can still inform.
* Does the author demonstrate a minimal competency in grammar and usage? I’m not talking about pulling out the red pens and counting violations of the AP Stylebook or Strunk and White, but can the author put together coherent paragraphs?
* I think we should consider some uses of Facebook to be publishing, too. Facebook has evolved from being a platform for college students to discuss their latest party to include “Groups” and “Pages,” both of which can use elements of an interactive publication.
At bottom, I think we need to think of “what we do” rather than “where we do it.” And “what we do” is tell stories and inform people about skiing, snowboarding, and the alpine environment generally.
Actively embracing self-published writers may seem like a risky proposition, but NASJA is in perilous times already. It can die a slow death, or rethink how it defines itself.