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Home > Publications > Quill > SPJ should take a stand on ‘professionalism’


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Tuesday, August 7, 2007
SPJ should take a stand on ‘professionalism’

by Christine Tatum, SPJ National President

It’s tough to overstate the importance of separating newsrooms from the business offices surrounding them. Surely, I don’t need to elaborate here why the folks in ad sales, marketing and the offices of the publisher or station owner shouldn’t have a modicum of input about story selection and coverage.

While this separation is imperative, I fear many journalists have used it as an excuse for not learning more about the business behind the practice of journalism. Understanding the underlying economics of our trade could help us improve and protect journalism even as news organizations slash staff and scramble to deliver information in the digital age.

The key to protecting journalism from some of the business decisions often affecting it may very well lie in the second word of this great organization’s name, “professional.”

In his book “The Vanishing Newspaper: Saving Journalism in the Information Age,” professor Philip Meyer of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill explains the root of the news industry’s economic turmoil and recommends ways in which journalists can save the integrity and credibility of journalism.

“The problem of preserving quality journalism gets especially close attention during cyclical economic downturns,” he wrote. “But the underlying problem is not cyclical at all. The business cycle can attenuate or exaggerate the trend, but the long drift toward more specialized media at the expense of mass media seems likely to continue.”

In other words, the fat profits many head honchos have enjoyed are going away now that technology has battered their once iron-fisted control over retailers’ access to consumers.

“High-quality journalism will still be economically feasible, but it won’t be as profitable,” Meyer wrote. “The problem is not one of maintaining old profitability. That can’t be done in a sustainable way. The real problem is adjusting to profit levels that are normal for competitive markets.”

As a result, news-company execs will continue to be tempted to cut journalistic resources. Smart ones will refrain. They instead will focus on new niche markets and embrace what Meyer terms “The Influence Model,” which provides economic justification for excellence in journalism (I’ll let you read the book for more details). The Influence Model is based heavily on the trust a news organization earns from the public it serves. The better the journalism, the higher the public’s trust. That higher public trust is likely to attract advertisers’ attention — and dollars.

But how to win that level of public trust? Meyer suggests plenty of ways (again, read the book), but one I find especially intriguing is “professionalism.”

Journalism is rightly for everyone, and these days, anyone blogging from his basement could arguably call himself a journalist. That is why, Meyer essentially argues, that “professional journalists” must do more to distinguish themselves if they’re at all serious about winning public trust.

He makes two recommendations SPJ members should consider seriously. These recommendations have been the subject of debate within SPJ. But those debates, held years ago when times were very different, have involved relatively few national leaders. It’s time to open up this conversation to all of our members, and I will make sure we do so soon.

First, Meyer recommends that journalists — ideally “broader organizations of professional journalists” — band together to publicly denounce violations of an agreed-upon journalism ethics codes. He’s not talking about sanctions or stripping anyone of their press cards and titles. He simply thinks we should start naming names even if it means we’re criticizing specific journalists and news organizations. I agree.

“When nonprofessional behavior comes to public attention, somebody needs to speak up for the profession and say, in effect, ‘This is outside the bounds of our normal and approved behavior; this person’s actions do not define us,’” Meyer wrote.

Meyer also champions professional certification for journalists. Want to say you’re an expert at covering medicine or law? Demonstrating core competency would differentiate those who truly know their stuff from the wannabes. The idea isn’t novel in journalism. Many TV weather forecasters are certified by the American Meteorological Society.

“If journalism is to survive, it will need a professional apparatus as one of the tools in the fight,” Meyer wrote. “Trying to reform investors, editors and publishers is a good idea, but let’s not wait for those people to change their ways. Those of us who practice or teach journalism at ground level will make progress with greater speed and certainty if we also organize to reform ourselves.”

I look forward to hearing what you think. Please contact me at ctatum@spj.org.

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