I’ve been asking and trying to answer this question for some time, since it’s most basic and existential one posed by digital technology which puts the power to publish in the hands of anyone with a smartphone. If journalists can’t answer it, they’re unlikely to find their way out of the troubles generated by the disruption of their business models.
So I perked up when this question was put by Steve Buttry, who works for John Paton’s Digital First company. And I like the image of gatekeepers made redundant by the fact that the fence has been blown away.
Steve has a list of purposes. Journalists are storytellers, watchdogs, fact-checkers, aggregators or curators and they investigate. When I tried answering this question, my list (extended version of the argument here) had four items and overlaps with Steve’s. Distilling down, this is what journalists do:
- Sense-making (analysis, interpretation, opinion)
- Eye-witness (still crucial in less open and accountable societies)
All those four activities can be done better by people with experience, practice and skill. And that remains true in a digital era.