Citizen Can-do: the inexorable and tragic rise of the amateur journalist
I almost became a journalist, once.
I WAS AN air force pilot at the time, and after 10 years of that had decided I wanted a change of scene (or maybe, more accurately, fewer changes of scene). I didn’t want to be an airline pilot, so instead I sat down and went through the usual process of thinking about what my skills were, what kind of work I enjoyed, the kind of work environment I’d like to turn up to every day and so on.
I pretty quickly arrived at a shortlist with just two contenders: advertising creative and journalist.
The speed at which I arrived at the shortlist was nothing compared to the hummingbird-blink-pace at which I made my choice between the two, and it came down to just one thing: money.
(There was also the small matter that advertising people didn’t need to, you know, train and stuff – although that, sadly, has changed since.)
Call me shallow, but it seemed to me that when making a choice between two professions that are both, at their best, about telling the truth in a compelling way, you’d be nuts to choose the one that paid you 25 cents a word when Don Draper was standing in the agency doorway waving a briefcase full of cash. So I chose the advertising route. I might have been kidding myself, of course, as during my advertising career I have also been a features editor, creative director, contributing editor, columnist and astrologer at magazines including New Zealand’s leading business and innovation journal. In the meantime I've written regularly for the National Business Review and have for the last year or so had my own show on Radio Live. Last year I was a finalist for not one but two national media awards. But I’m not a journalist. And that’s a worry. Actual journalists – notebook-clutching Lois Lanes and Clark Kents who know about not just shorthand but also ethics – are a threatened species. New Zealand journalism is only a redundancy or two away from Gareth Hughes, Green Party MP, chaining himself to an editor in protest. Communications teams – government and commercial – vastly outnumber reporters and editors. The result is that the stories that need to be written are in many cases not. There just aren’t enough journalists and they don’t have the time. Corporate content is winning the arms race. Which leaves amateurs and part timers like me. Most readers don’t care if the story (or indeed, column) they’re reading was written by someone who went to journalism school or flying school. But perhaps they should. Rigour, fact checking, balance, protection of sources… all that professional and ethical stuff doesn’t come naturally to an amateur, but it’s all taught at journalism school for a reason. And as actual journalists become a dwindling minority this problem will only get bigger.
There are legal issues too. Name suppression is a particularly challenging issue for part-time journalists, and has forced the courts in at least one case to reconsider what a journalist actually is.
Twenty years ago, when suppression orders, ironically, were less common, promulgating one was pretty straightforward: the judge announced it in court, and the journalists passed that on to their editors. Now that almost all of us are at least content publishers, and just as subject to those suppression orders as Lois and Clark, the problem becomes a little thornier. How does a judge tell every Twitter and Facebook user in New Zealand that a name is suppressed? And if she does, hasn’t she just defeated the purpose?
Years ago there was a very good ad for New Zealand Skier Magazine that summed up the issue nicely. It showed a man passing through New Zealand customs; a skier, judging by the goggle-shaped white patch on his otherwise sunburnt face. The custom officer looks at his form and says something like, “Sir, it says here you’re a journalist…” The skier nods. “That’s right.” “But sir,” the customs officer points out, “journalist isn’t usually spelt with a g.”
The ad signs off with “We write. We ski. But mostly we ski.”
It’s a lovely observation. But today, as more and more media content is being made by amateurs, it might just be time we stepped up, spent a little less time skiing (or flying, or goat farming) and a little more on learning the professional skills New Zealand readers deserve. Vaughn Davis farms goats, flies aeroplanes, builds brands, hosts a radio show and tweets @vaughndavis. He once landed a big aeroplane on a sheet of floating ice in Antarctica, but that was ages ago.