March 24, 2008

Reporters no more?

From an interesting piece in PJ Media on whether reporters are an endangered species...

...This middleman function, with reporters serving as mere links in a news supply chain, was never needed until fairly recently. Before the printing press was invented, we were all receivers and transmitters of news, spreading it by word-of-mouth. Soon after its invention, multitudes of mostly one-man print-shops, as a sideline, printed newspapers to supplement this word-of-mouth process. These printers wrote their own articles blending facts with opinion, much like bloggers do today. Others also contributed, often without receiving compensation or attribution — citizens, gossips, letter-writing “correspondents” from other towns, and similarly-operating foreign and domestic newspapers whose stories were simply lifted.

Since this is what news looked like at the time of the Founding Fathers, they gave no particular mandate to reporters, a function that did not even exist at the time. The “freedom of the press” they cited in the First Amendment was not about “the press,” but about everyone’s right to freely use a printing press to express their views without government interference, supplementing the free speech clause that allowed everyone to express their views orally.

The first full-time reporter in America did not appear until the 1820’s, after steam engines were integrated into printing presses. Suddenly, newspapers had to be run like businesses to achieve consistently high circulation levels to pay for equipment and keep newsstand prices low. Reporters provided the needed constant flow of consistently well-written articles....

The term "reporter" usually means a generalist. His job is, for the most part, to find the person who has specific knowledge, and pass that knowledge on to the public. He's a middleman. If he is covering a fire, he will talk to witnesses and firefighters, and boil down their knowledge into a story. And he is a generalist, because the next day he may be covering a royal wedding or a prize fight.

The Internet tends to destroy middlemen. (Or actually it's a more general trend of the Information Age. When I was young, maybe in the late 50's or early 60's, my father was transitioning his nursery business from selling plants to wholesalers, to selling direct to retail nurseries and flower shops. This was probably a matter of easier flows of information. Freeways and better phone service meant that salesmen could cover more ground, and work directly with a lot of small businesses. So goodbye local wholesaler.)

If there is a big fire, the witnesses can now put information directly into the hands of consumers, say by posting it in a blog. So who needs reporters?

But a reporter can also be himself the person who has specific knowledge. If he covers a special beat, then he may have understanding that most people don't. So he is more than a middleman, he is able to create valuable information on his own. Which doesn't necessarily mean he will be able to sell it in an age that has torrents of free information "deflating the currency."
(Thanks to Rand)

Posted by John Weidner at March 24, 2008 11:31 AM
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