There’s been a great debate over on Jeremy Head’s Travelblather blog, which started off as a proposal for a new way to fund travel writing, but which – in the comments – has shifted over, at least partly, into the old familiar barney about the differences (if any) between bloggers and journalists.
One comment on Travelblather is particular telling: Pam, who blogs at Nerd’s Eye View, says she’s tired of travel journalists calling themselves professional. “What does that mean, anyway?” she asks. I agree it’s a tough term to define; after all, unlike the ‘professions’ of law, medicine and so on, you don’t have to pass an exam to be a travel journalist. Anyone can try their hand at it – like photography.
I’m a photographer, but I consider myself an amateur: I carry a fairly decent camera with me when I’m working, and have had dozens of photos published – from low-res national newspapers to full-page bleeds in high-quality glossy magazines – but a real photographer would instantly be able to tell that I’m actually not much good. I can do composition, and the very best of my pics are worth a look, but technically they’re all pretty much a dog’s dinner.
For me, that’s the main point about professionalism. It might be hard to define – but you sure as heck notice when it’s not there.
That hooks into what I see is the big, big difference between bloggers (even full-time bloggers) and journalists. (I can already tell that this isn’t going to make me very popular in some quarters.)
I blog, I write for newspapers and magazines and I author books. I’ve also been an editor on books and magazines, a sub-editor, a proofreader – I work with words: that’s how I make a living to support my family. I’m a writer.
And I’m a better writer when I’m edited.
I love blogging: it’s a uniquely diverse medium. Being solely responsible for the stuff you publish is a real challenge. There are some great bloggers – and some rubbish journalists.
But still, only the latter are professionals. Why? Because they are being edited – that is, their creativity is reviewed before publication by people who work with words for a living. Editing has become unfashionable, and badly edited books and texts are everywhere – lots of people don’t even know what editing is – but it is absolutely crucial to the process of writing. Journalists are edited, bloggers are not. Bloggers (and readers of blogs) might see that as an advantage – and, in some cases, it is – but on the whole, in most instances, as a broad generalisation, editing makes journalists better writers than bloggers.
By ‘better’ I mean they use language in a more proficient way, say things more clearly, complete the job in a more pleasing way. It’s a quality issue. Most carpenters handle wood better than most plasterers. Most journalists handle words better than most bloggers (the ones I read, anyway).
Skills and motivation
There’s also a skill-set involved in journalism which bloggers don’t need. Researching, interviewing, extracting key details from a mass of information, developing sources, cross-checking. Knowing how to use these techniques (and why they are important) makes you a professional. Journalists are accountable for what they write in a way that bloggers simply aren’t. That doesn’t mean bloggers are ‘worse’ – indeed, they have a whole skill-set of their own that many journalists only vaguely understand – but it does mean that bloggers must gain new skills if they want to become journalists, and vice versa.
There’s another, linked point. Journalists make a living from what they write. Bloggers make a living because of what they write. There’s a big difference. If bloggers write stuff that is engaging, insightful, well conceived, well structured and intelligent, but that doesn’t bring traffic (and clicks), they make no money. By necessity, because of our desperately restrictive ad-centred online culture, bloggers must write stuff that is – in the broadest sense – popular. It can be crud in terms of content, style and/or purpose, but it must attract wide interest. (If it doesn’t, those bloggers make less money – or simply don’t attract followers.)
The only criterion for journalists, by contrast, is that their stuff must be well written. It doesn’t matter about the perception of popularity – because, in virtually all cases, the subject that the journalist is writing about has already been vetted and approved by experienced and (sorry) professional editors. And the beauty of a free press is that journalists can write stuff which might be unpopular, but which might still be important, and can have their material taken seriously by a diverse readership. They fail only if what they produce is badly written. Like I said before, professional quality is really difficult to define – but you know when it’s not there.
World of difference
There’s a world of difference between me making a soufflé, and a professional chef doing it. I can research the causes of the First World War and give a lecture to a hall full of students – but a professional academic would do it better. Leave me alone for long enough with your car and a Haynes manual, and I could probably fix that knocking noise in the back – but a professional mechanic would do it better (and more quickly).
It’s the same with writing. There’s plenty of room for blogging and journalism – but let’s not get the two mixed up.