Job do not journalists make

Bumper sticks were handed out in the newsroom yesterday: Democracy Depends on Journalism. This lovely and largely true slogan was authored by The Newspaper Guild, of which I am honored to be a card-carrying member. The slogan is part of a campaign, to dramatize the loss of jobs — about 44,000 over the last five years — by people like me.

While I worry about my paycheck, and what happens to journalism in an online world, I can not make the leap between mass media staffing levels and the health of the republic. That would be as simplistic as saying fewer cops lessens public safety. 

Blame technology or praise it, but “the collecting, writing, editing, and presenting of news or news articles” — the prime dictionary definition of journalism — have escaped the control of mass media. (For example, look at a forthcoming experiment in wiki-style news gathering.)

Perhaps I’m resigned to this because I’ve already surrendered one professional skill to technology. In 1980 I co-founded a typography and small press printing shop. Desktop publishing and all manner of rapid print technologies blew that away. I survived. In 1990 I began the migration to my current job. Of course I was in my mid-30s then. It’s scarier in the 50s to start over but the economy really doesn’t give a damn about me. 

I blow hot and cold on whether the shift from professional to citizen journalism will be good or bad for society. I don’t imagine, for instance, that citizen journalists have the chops to replace the investigative skills that took media firms decades to develop. On the other hand mass media have been lazy watchdogs so maybe competition from blogs and user-generated content will be for the good of governance. (When I was a typographer I worried that amateurs, using desktop publishing, would clutter up the presentation of material. If anything, design has flourished in more hands.)

So, yes, journalism is important to democracy. But journalism is mutating. We as professional journalists may ultimately be judged by how gracefully we translate our hard-learned values to the citizens who have the capability to wield publishing power — and we will have to do so as our jobs become the compost of the next media. But then we knew journalism was a calling when we came to it, didn’t we?

So God bless the union for lamenting the attrition in our ranks. But maybe the union should be organizing citizen journalists, to help them gain market clout — and health insurance (here’s another plan in that regard). To lash the union to mass media makes no more sense than assuming that newspapers, magazine, radio and television are the only vessels that can carry journalism.