This is a brief write-up of a lunchtime talk I gave at City University journalism department a short while ago
Conversations about journalists tend to be very media-based. Are you a print or a broadcast journalist? Do you write for newspapers or magazines? Do you blog? But given that journalists now write, take pictures, record audio and video, and most jump between platforms on a regular basis then it doesn’t seem very useful to define people by media. So how should journalists be defined?
Here are 7 journalist archetypes (and an eighth that I can’t quite square) to better capture the journalist of tomorrow. This isn’t a scientific exercise. The archetypes are based on personal observation and on looking at some of the thousands of journalist profiles on journalisted.com (which we run).
Some of the categories overlap. There are probably some categories missing. In other words you shouldn’t take this as gospel. It’s more of a conversation opener. So jump in and suggest your own, there’s plenty of room at the bottom of this post.
7 journalist archetypes
This is the journalist whose name outshines, eclipses even, the journal(s) s/he writes for. That means people like Jeremy Clarkson who, according to a report in 2009, accounted for 25% of the Times website online traffic (pre-paywall). Other ‘uber brands’ might include Stephen Fry, Caitlin Moran, Charlie Brooker, and Robert Peston.
(Ivor Gaber has pointed out that there is probably a mezzanine level of ‘uber brands’ – i.e. columnists who earn a good income but aren’t quite well known enough to go it alone.)
This is the ever shrinking number of professional generalist journalists working for mainstream media. ‘Hamster’ because more and more is now expected of these journalists such that they are becoming like hamsters on a wheel, desperately running just to say in the same place. Producing multiple reports for multiple platforms on a constant basis
This is the person who uses journalism as a means to an end: to raise awareness about human rights abuses, to free government data, to campaign for a greener world, to end child detention, etc. Clare Sambrook has been so successful at the last (campaigning to end child detention) that she has – to date – won two awards for investigative journalism. Yet she has written mostly for non-mainstream outlets (presumably for little or no pay).
This type of journalism – particularly at NGOs – is on the rise. If you read a job ad for many campaigning non-profits you could be forgiven for thinking it was an ad for a journalist. A recent ad on the Human Rights Watch website wanted someone who would be ‘collecting and analyzing information from a wide variety of sources … writing reports, briefing memos, statements, advocacy documents, op-eds, articles, and press releases’. Sounds pretty similar to what many journalists do.
For this person journalism is one of a portfolio of jobs that together provide a living wage. It may be that journalism is a sort of ‘shop-window’ for some of the other stuff they do – in professional communications, training, or academe. John Foster writes for the Evening Standard, The Times, the Yorkshire Post, the BBC, CSP Today, Cash & Trade, Upward Curve, Ideas, Funds Europe and others. He is also managing director of Ad Hoc Media and Financial Consultancy. Alf Alderson freelances for The Guardian, Independent, Times, Daily Telegraph, Ski & Board magazine, Fall Line, Surfer’s Path, and others. He is also writes guidebooks and offers guided surf tours.
The communitarian cares about their local community. A lot. They care enough that they are willing to devote considerable amounts of time – for very little or no money – to running a local forum where people can discuss issues, providing information on local events and, in many cases, reporting on what is happening in the local area. Mike Rawlins and Tony Walley do this with their vibrant site Pits n Pots in Stoke on Trent. Nicky Getgood does the same in Digbeth. See Talk About Local for many more.
The specialist knows oodles about a specfic subject. People like Larry Elliott, Alex Brummer, and Martin Wolf know lots about economics, for example. Paul Tomkins, who runs the The Tomkins Times, knows lots about Liverpool Football Club. Knowing a lot more than most people means that many specialists have knowledge and skills that people will pay for. The TomkinsTimes charges £3.50 a month subscription and, I understand, has a growing subscriber base in the thousands.
The geek is becoming increasingly important to the future of journalism. Yet there is a good chance that s/he (though more often a he than a she) does not even think of himself as a journalist. More likely the public spirited geek simply wants to do things that make information more accessible (e.g. theyworkforyou.com), enable people to tell the council about a pothole in their street (e.g. fixmystreet.com), tell people about planning applications in their area (e.g. planningalerts.com), or allow people to audio record and publish from a mobile phone in 3 clicks (e.g. audioboo).
A few things stand out from this list of seven:
- Only two out of seven are fully employed by a professional news organisations (the hamster and the specialist)
- Two more get a proportion of their income from news organisations (the uber brand and the portfolio-ista), though wouldn’t starve if the organisations disappeared / went under.
- Two more are not doing journalism for the money (the campaigner and the communitarian), and the final one could be employed by any number of people, including the State (the geek)
All of the journalists on this list, even if they earn little or no money from journalism, have a baseline of journalism skills. The communitarian will know how to use open source software to build and help fill a website. The campaigner will probably be adept at tweeting, blogging, and crowdsourcing support for a cause, and so on.
The list also raises ethical questions. How open should the portfolio-ista be about the jobs they do outside journalism? What happens if they have to write about one of their current or former employers?
There is an eighth archetype that I didn’t include but could have done. That is ‘the editor’. Some people consider the journalist and the editor to be synonymous, and it is certainly true that today’s increasingly autonomous journalist has to have many of the skills of an editor. Most journalists now ‘curate’ – i.e. make recommendations via twitter and elsewhere. Many edit and publish their own work. Yet, at the same time there is a strong argument to say that the importance, and distinctiveness, of the editor ought to make it a separate category. What do you think?