Writing skill is no longer enough to sustain journalists

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What’s the value of journalism?

The short answer is, of course, “whatever someone will pay for it.” But a more thoughtful response gets at why people are willing to exchange something of value for news information.

Economics 101 teaches that if more people want something, and the scarcer it is, the higher the price. With millions of new websites competing for people’s attention, advertising rates across all media have plunged, threatening news businesses that depend upon advertising income.

But the Internet hasn’t just created more advertising space, driving down its price. It’s also developing millions of new writers, diminishing the economic value of writing itself as a craft.

Before the Internet, most people never wrote outside the classroom. A few might pen an occasional letter to distant relatives, or an annual letter with the family’s Christmas card. Today, people are writing more than ever before – sending e-mails, updating Facebook pages, posting to discussion forums and blogs. Not just students, either. The Internet enables adults to continue writing throughout their lives, using the written word to inform friends, family, neighbors and colleagues about the goings-on in their lives.

Nor is our new era of hyperliteracy limited to the written word. The ubiquity of digital cameras (including those on cell phones), as well as video cameras such as the Flip, gives people the opportunity to develop unprecedented literacy in visual communication.

In the film era, you didn’t want to waste shots, so people didn’t take many pictures. Today, people shoot exponentially more images, and in situations where they’d never have lugged along a camera before.

When I was young, a child rarely got his or her hands on a video camera. Journalism students learned video in the classroom, sharing cameras and with limited practice time.

Today, students come to journalism school having shot video for years. My nine-year-old son seems to have an HD Flip in his hands more often that not – he’s learning to tell the stories of his life through video as much as through the written word.

As the 21st century progresses, going to school to major in writing and shooting stories will become like going to school to learn breathing. What’s the point? It’s a ubiquitous activity that everyone learns on his or her own long before college. With so many more people getting their 10,000 hours of writing and shooting early in life, more people than ever are able now technically to report to others the news that they encounter.

What’s the value in being a journalist when everyone is doing journalism?

Yes, news organizations must find new production models that allow them to remain profitable in a competitive publishing market. But news publishers must also reconsider whom they’re hiring. Journalism schools must also reconsider the instruction that they provide.

There’s no longer any use in merely teaching people to write to a formula and conform to a specific stylebook. While those skills had enough value a generation ago for an individual to build a career, the new, hyperliterate media marketplace has rendered those skills – in isolation – as practically worthless.

Sure, such skills have value – I compared writing to breathing before, and just try to live without breathing sometime. But no one other than elite singers pays for breathing lessons, and no one pays anyone else to breathe for him or her.

Journalists who wish to continue earning a living from their work must bring something else to the table. For some, it might be superlative writing ability. Great storytellers always will be able to command income for their work, but let’s not forget that there are thousands of starving would-be auteurs for every James Cameron.

Reporting skill and knowledge provide a more feasible route. While millions can write and shoot well enough to communicate with a broad audience, significantly fewer have the expertise to discover and analyze fresh information of interest to those audiences. Many folks will be able to report the news when it happens in front of them, but there remains great market value in knowing how to dig up news when it’s not out in the open.

To do that, the stenography model of journalism must die. Many random people off the street will be able to paste together a “he said, she said” story. What the hyperliterate media marketplace needs are experts who can analyze, and advocate for, information in the public interest.

That demands journalists who have professional-level training and experience with the beats that they cover. It demands journalists who have the analytical skills, including training in statistics, to make sense of datasets and to find the stories buried within them. It will demand journalism schools to become significantly more selective in the students that they admit – choosing only those with the academic skills and performance to meet these new demands.

The era of the journalist as mere scribe is over. As we contemplate how the industry will endure as it moves from monopoly to competition, we ought to remember that fact, as well.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. Absolutely on point Robert.

  2. says:

    you are forgetting that most people are just terrible writers. the majority of people who call themselves “writers” are terrible writers. the majority of people who think they are good writers are HORRIBLE writers. I get depressed at all of the hackish cliches I see by “writers.” some of them are paid. have you ever read the reviews in the la times by betsy sharky, mary mcnamara, or ann powers? they make me want to cry. these people are getting paid for sitting there, doing nothing, and saying nothing original. video and photos are great. but please dont assume that most people can write; trust me, they can’t. its still an important commodity to be a good writer. in fact, these dumb hacks (see above) are getting paid to write poorly

  3. Great belabouring of a rather obvious point.

    Writing skills no doubt are essential in the wider communication industry but the scope of Journalism is much broader than what good writing can help achieve. This is especially so, when one considers the many platforms of a multi-media terrain that a journalist today, routinely traverses.

    Indeed, almost anyone can deliver a ‘he said’ ‘she said’ type of news story, in the drab 5Ws and an H conveyor belt manner. But not everyone has the ability to interrogate the ‘so what’ factors and report on the significance of what is being reported, which can be reinforced via proper training.

    As you correctly posit, an analytical and interpretive journalist has long gained favour in many a newsroom compared to the one who simply relays what news subjects say or the day’s major occurrences.

    But like I have previously argued,It’s a lie: journalists don’t know everything

    Journalists must resist the urge to delude themselves into believing they are experts on any subject under the sun.

    Instead, good old attribution should be a common feature of their reports and whereas there is no harm in specialising in certain fields, an authoritative assessment of a situation should ideally be enriched with the input of multiple sources or cross-referencing.

    Many media establishments are also putting a premium on those coming on board with an intimate knowledge of certain fields relevant to the media sector. I fully identify with those arguing that a person with a background in legal training can be taught journalistic skills and transformed into an incisive court reporter. Likewise, somebody with a college degree in finance, marketing or commerce can be trained to be a more effective business reporter.

    This makes a lot of sense compared to hiring a person with a Communication or Journalism major, and then expecting them to grasp technical details or highly specialized concepts. And like you have previously remarked in this forum, these are the same journalists that have to be alive to the fact that PhD holders are also now engaging in the business of disseminating information.

    Whereas writing skills are not enough to sustain journalists, media ethics and other aspects of professionalism are still iconic pillars of a dignified press, which might be obliterated by the proliferation of ‘self-made journalists.’

  4. I agree completely with the idea that “What the hyperliterate media marketplace needs are experts who can analyze, and advocate for, information in the public interest.” But it seems that’s what the marketplace has always needed from journalists, isn’t it?

    What I respectfully disagree with is the idea that, ‘Many random people off the street will be able to paste together a “he said, she said’ story.”

    The “hyperliterate” world you describe may be fostering frequent writing, but not necessarily good writing, especially in long narrative form.

  5. says:

    Technological advances have allowed more people to keep more teeth longer, but that doesn’t mean we’re a nation of dentists.

    Comparing recreational emails, updating fb, and twittering to the role of journalism in a digital economy is valid. Equating them is not. I agree with Robert here–your argument fails to include or consider the training specific to gathering and writing news beyond WWWWH. One look at an average blog post or facebook update status and it’s easy to discern that finding topics that are interesting–knowing what is worth writing about–is a valuable, esoteric skill. As is maintaining and negotiating with a rolodex of sources.

    Meanwhile, as our society becomes more and more run by corporations and corporate interest and less literate (the ability to type doesn’t equal literacy, either) it will become even more important to listen to watchdogs who can slice through the noise and buzz, no doubt amplified by “churnalists” like recreational bloggers, twitterers and fb-ers.

    Much of the career problem–how to continue to get paid to do this stuff–is due to too many people thinking like the author here, with a lazy “what’s the difference?” attitude. This kind of delusional thinking that everyone is a journalist because they can type is more fundamentally dangerous to the industry’s survival and society than a mere format switch, like going from print to online. It’s a lot easier to learn HTML than it is to convince a newspaper owners that it’s the quality of the content that matters, not how much or early in the morning you can throw it up there.

    Tara Murtha

  6. Another point to note: Editing and community management skills are very marketable right now, and they make an excellent complement to traditional journalism.

    And if you can effectively use online tools to create embeddable content elements (such as Scribd for documents, Flickr for photo slideshows, CoverItLive for liveblogging, SoundCloud for audio, or Vimeo/YouTube for video embedding), that’s a big career boost.

    It’s create to also be able to create/edit/produce audio and video — but if you can at least make good use of these embeddable tools, you’ve got a strong advantages in media these days.

  7. Good post and an interesting point. Even if you take the above comments that “most people are terrible writers”.

    Assuming only 0.1% of people are “great” writers, that still means tens of thousands of great articles being published on a daily basis for free.

  8. says:

    It’s also back to the future: many more journalists before J-schools used to be very good at questioning authority and digging out the buried facts, along with drinking heavily (some of them). My fear is that letting J-schools continue to vet new journalists will simply breed more tame journalists but with excellent expertise in one or two specialized areas. We’d be in the same boat we are now.

    The real problem is that many journalists, especially at the top of the heap in the political reporting arena, have become captive to their sources and the environment they work in. How you break that dynamic, and if you can break it, will determine success or failure for future journalists. Part of the fault also lies with editors who, for whatever reason, refuse to push journalists to dig deeper into stories, to engage and try to refute aspects of stories reported by others, and other activities that lead to the truth, if truth is truly possible. And, of course, a corporate newsroom breeds a tame corporate mindset where news is money and entertainment, not a public service.

    So, yes, let’s get journalists with significant experience. Perhaps recruit literate lawyers, accountants, cops, and others into journalism as a second career. But let’s also make sure they’re fearless, that they enjoy afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted. Let’s do the same for their editors. And let’s work to change the perception that news has to generate a profit always.

  9. says:

    As an unemployed person with journalism skills, I contacted my local newspaper and told them I had time on my hands to write as a stringer.

    I have been flooded with work. The newspaper is so short-staffed that much of the original content is now produced by freelancers. It’s great for me – I’m keeping my head above water. But it’s really bad for producing intelligent news.

    I just covered a mayor’s annual speech. Before I did the article, I had no idea who the mayor was, what the city’s issues were, who was on the council, what the historic relationships were…A good beat reporter would have known all that and would have been able to focus the article more clearly.

    I would love to be a daily news reporter. But I can’t live on what they would pay me even if they were hiring. But they aren’t. They just outsourced their copy editing to a staff 2 time zones away.