'Doing' journalism

An iPhone is not journalism. Nor is a smartphone, nor a tablet, nor a laptop, nor a netbook, a desktop, a newspaper, a notebook and certainly not Twitter.

None of those things are journalism, but those things can contribute to journalism. They can all create journalism — or at least, they can help. Because journalism is, of course, the telling of a story. There's a specifically vague definition of story in that last sentence, by the way — the story is a set of a facts and opinions that tries to impart information untainted with bias, and balanced to the extent that it does not prejudice for or against anything save the truth.

It's an extremely vague description that's part rooted in the past and part in reaction to the seemingly endless proliferation of storytelling platforms available to us in the digital age. It is right and proper that newspaper websites should provide video. It's right that TV stations should produce written stories on their site and apps. It's right that monthly magazines should produce live-streaming Twitter feeds as it is right that digital publications should produce print editions.

None of those things are wrong, because the only restriction on the proper format to tell a story is the story itself. But while there should be no limitations on the platforms available to us to impart information, there should also be no hard-and-fast requirements as to which platform must be used for a specific story.

Not every newspaper story should have to be posted online with accompanying video, just as not every blog entry should be accompanied by a full-fledged magazine piece.

There are realities, of course — a TV newscast must fill the airwaves as a newspaper must fill pages, but that should dictate story and assignment selection, not the other way around. Or, in a perfect world, the story that plays excellently in a video could be retold for text consumption, but that requires and time (and therefore money). It's up to the organization to ascertain if it's worth it.

I found my way to mulling this topic via an essay from Matt Gemmell, on tech journalism's seeming inability to review devices in toto, without resorting to direct comparisons to what came before (X device is an iPhone-killer, Y service is a Twitter-killer). Part of their flaw is simple rhetorical laziness; part is an inability to acknowledge the simple American fact that one size (be it yoga pants or smartphone screen size) rarely fits all:

... each is substantially better at certain tasks than the others – whether it’s due to ergonomics, aesthetics, endurance, portability, capability, or software/media availability.... Compromises are sometimes necessary, but they indicate flawed options or artificial limitations. I don’t think we take enough time to assess whether we’re unconsciously opting into constraints that don’t really need to exist. (Empahsis original)

We should definitely heed this advice when it comes to equipping journalists. Most journalists will probably need smartphones in order to capture and upload quick videos and photos from the scene. Those journalists should be given smartphones.

But they should not then be required to do all of their work from said smartphone, because a smartphone does not offer the same faculties for editing photos, or editing longform video, and certainly not for writing a story of any decent length. It should be as silly to expect a soldier to charge into battle clad in football helmet and pads as asking reporters to enter all their articles via Droid (or even iPad).

Different tools are built to perform different actions — claiming penury does not alter those facts to allow the worker to perform a different function. Just because you bought a bunch of one device or signed up for a popular new web service doesn't mean that was the only or correct decision. This applies to both external offerings to the public as well as the internal processes and system that we build upon.

While it's understandable and to an extent desirable that we should constantly seek out the newest technologies to see how they might amplify and accentuate our offerings, it's vitally important that we remember the ultimate goal of journalism as an enterprise: To tell the story in the best way for that particular story to be told. It's difficult, no doubt. It requires an understanding of how the tools work, not merely cursory knowledge of how to use them.

Because we have to thread the needle, simultaneously keeping an eye on the newest and shiniest without immediately dictating that we must do everything with it because it is so new, and so very shiny. Otherwise we risk being discarded when the newest new thing comes along.