Journalism is a verb, not a noun

Journalism is a verb, not a noun

: Many knickers are twisting into knots over the questions ofwho is a journalist and how to save journalism. But those are the wrong questions.

Journalism is not defined by the person who does it or by the medium or the company that delivers it.

Journalism is not a thing. It is an act: The act of informing is journalism. It’s a verb, not a noun.

And no one owns journalism. It is not an official act, a certified act, an expert act, a proprietary act. Anyone can do journalism. Everyone does. Some do it better than others, of course. But everyone does it.

Realizing that — embracing that — will be the key to saving journalism: its quality and its business.

: Cut the act of journalism into its component pieces:

Witnessing: Seeing news happen is usually the beginning of the act of journalism. Used to be, witnessing news didn’t matter, it wasn’t heard, unless the witness was a reporter or was interviewed by one. Now, thanks to technology and connectivity, any witness can share the news. Within minutes of yesterday’s Indonesian earthquake, I went online and found eyewitness accounts that beat any news organization by hours, even days. As we learned in the tsunami, photos and video will also come from witnesses.

Asking: Seeking information you don’t have and want to know is also known as reporting. This was supposed to be the domain of the pros but more and more we see just people with sufficient knowledge or curiosity reporting.

Editing: Everyone edits. We select, we correct, we package, we present in the media we choose. (Some call this censorship but it’s not, of course; it’s just editing.)

Commenting: Giving news perspective is also part of journalism and everyone does that, too: We say what we think about a story or we criticize a movie. It’s the journalism absolutely anyone can do.

Distributing: Until a decade ago, this was where journalism was held hostage: If you didn’t own the press or the broadcast tower, you couldn’t do journalism; it wasn’t real, official, trusted (said those who owned those assets). It wasn’t heard. But now, of course, even a guy in Afghanistan can broadcast to the world.

When you slice journalism into its atomic elements, and generously define the acquisition, distribution, and consumption of information as acts of journalism, it’s apparent that, as Dave Winer says, either everyone is a journalist or no one is.

Now this analysis leaves out a few critical functions of the journalistic process up until now: Today, the journalistic organization invests in acquiring information, aggregates, selects, edits, vets, presents, and distributes. Can these functions be performed outside the journalistic organization? Yes. Do they have to be? No. Should they be? Well, you’ll decide that.

Right now we have people fretting over just those questions: Can journalism be saved? I think that’s the wrong question. Maybe we shouldn’t save the old way. Maybe, now that we have new opportunities, we should find a better way. The right question is: Can journalism be improved? Can journalism be expanded? Can journalism be exploded?

I believe — no surprise — that a key to the future of journalism is embracing the idea that everyone does journalism. This doesn’t mean that all journalism is equal or good or of interest. We still need to find ways to aggregate, select, edit, present, and distribute information in ways that are efficient, effective, and reliable for each of us. We still need to find ways to support these functions financially, whether they are performed by, as Chris Nolan says, stand-alone or corporate journalists. We especially need to find those ways in the face of declining — no, disappearing — revenue.

Old journalism is facing three crises:

1. Flat or declining audience. I am confident that the total time spent on news is actually increasing, but with more competitors, the time spent on big journalism is not. And I’m not talking just newspapers, of course; look at TV news as well.

2. Declining revenue. Classified is going pfffft. TV upfronts will no longer support ever greater prices for ever smaller audiences. Radio is a flat line. As Jay Rosen points out, it’s still profitable. But that’s not the same as growing or investing.

3. Declining trust. Enough said.

But turn this around and look at how exploded journalism faces new opportunities: By embracing all this new journalism people are doing, there is a no limit to the news that can be reported and there is tremendous efficiency to it. In this new world, the reporters are also the marketers. And once again, trust is something that is earned rather than protected. Here’s a vision of the future of news where that happens.

Rather than looking at all that as a competitor to be stopped, old journalism needs to see how to embrace the new but the new will go on whether or not it is embraced because everyone will be doing it.

So if old journalism were smart, it would find ways to support the new: Train the everybodies doing journalism; share financial support with them; share trust with them; find the best of them; aggregate them; share the spotlight with them; take advantage of the work they do; respect them.

We won’t save journalism the way it was. We shouldn’t if we could. The business must change. Some in newsrooms think they should not change, that change is sacrilegious. Of course, that’s ridiculous. From a consumer perspective, if the habits, needs, and abilities of the audience change, then so must journalism. From a business perspective, if every other industry in this country has gone through restructuring as it finds new ways to do business, then why shouldn’t journalism? From a journalistic perspective, well, wouldn’t you hope that journalists would be the most curious, the most eager to explore the new? OK, that last one is a straight line.

But here’s the news: I am starting to see executives in old, big media figure this out and seek out this change. Will it work? Who the hell knows?

: Sorry this has been so generalized, so basic. I was going to write a short post responding to all the links in the first paragraph above: a provocative essay by Jay Rosen arguing that journalism is starting to eat away at its own body; Dan Gillmor responding to Rosen; Jack Shafer giving David Shaw the slap he deserves; Phil Meyer as the ghost of journalism future; and Ken Auletta mourning the death of the cash cow that is advertising. But as I tried to tackle the beast, I kept coming back to the most elementary analysis:

This isn’t about the old journalism of people and things. It’s about the new journalism of acts.