Here’s one sign of how fast things are changing in the news business: It was only a couple of years ago that it was not only possible but downright fashionable to argue about whether bloggers are journalists. That was the wrong question, of course; a blog is just a vessel, and journalism the content that may or may not fill that vessel. Yet the whole tiresome debate seems more than a little quaint now that the likes of Hendrik Hertzberg, Nicholas Kristof and James Fallows are blogging—and, in plenty of cases, Facebooking and tweeting, too. In 2010, thank God, it’s a given that you don’t need the imprimatur of a huge news organization to be taken seriously as a journalist. Hell, you don’t even need a blog, or, for that matter, a name—just a cell phone.
I refer here to the anonymous Iranian upon whom, last week, was bestowed a George Polk Award, one of journalism’s top honors, for the video he or she captured of a female protester as she died from a sniper’s bullet during last year’s Green Revolution. The woman, Neda Agha-Soltan, instantly became a national martyr and international cause célèbre. The identity of the individual who immortalized her death—described in the citation as “a brave bystander with a cell-phone camera”—is still unknown, but there’s no reason to think he/she was anything other than a civilian.
The selection was received as a statement—about the democratization that needs to happen in Iran, yes, but also about the democratization and decentralization that’s already happening in the news business. At the risk of giving too much credit to a bunch of awards-committee grandees, there’s an important lesson here. In the latter half of the last century, journalism mutated from a relatively prestige-free trade into a hoity-toity profession that, like medicine and law, involves graduate degrees and six-figure salaries. But journalism is not a profession, or even a trade, really. It’s an act. And anyone who performs that act is, at that moment, a journalist.
This recognition comes as the journalistic establishment slides beneath the water line, taking with it the six-figure jobs necessary to pay off all those J-school loans. And the people benefiting from this aren’t just the amateurs. It’s no coincidence that in the same week Neda’s videographer got his due, the Pulitzer Prize committee reportedly agreed to accept a submission from The National Enquirer for its reporting on John Edwards’ extramarital monkeyshines. Tabloid reporters are historically the untouchables of the journalistic caste system, too sullied by the trash-sifting work they do to move anywhere but down the food chain. But that was in the old days, when the logo on your business card meant a damn.
In essence, the market for acts of journalism has gone from a cartel-based system to something approximating free enterprise, where it’s the value of the goods themselves that matters, not the reputation of the vendor. That, in itself, is a great thing. But it has some unnerving implications. Start-ups like Demand Media and Associated Content are taking the free-market ethos to its logical conclusion, producing content based on algorithms that calculate consumer demand and sourcing the production to a far-flung network of low-paid freelancers. (AOL, my primary employer, has a venture called Seed that operates on similar principles.) To say that professional journalists are skeptical that such “robo-content” can ever replace the work of experienced full-timers is a vast understatement. But plenty of smart people think otherwise. Betsy Morgan, the former CEO of the Huffington Post, tells me she believes the new-breed content farmers could do to legacy media companies what the Japanese did to American automakers in the 1980s, undermining their economics forever. “Demand is well positioned to migrate up market with their content as Toyota did with their car models,” Morgan says. “That’s where things could get interesting for the established brands.”
As someone who’s still using his old-media salary to pay off school loans, I hope Morgan’s wrong. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
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