The controversy over the status of “contributors” on the Huffington Post serves to illustrate a quintessential truth about journalism in the twenty-first century; professional journalists represent an ancien régime that has been forced to justify its own existence in the face of a growing group of prolific and well-read amateurs.
This discussion calls into question the function of a professional journalist. Is there more to legitimate journalism than objectively researching an event, person, or idea and then writing about it through a particular medium? While journalists likely possess a Bachelors or Masters degree in their field, the skills that they learn through these courses of study are hardly exclusive to their discipline. As a historian, I have also been trained to research, write, inform, publish and, when the situation merits, passionately argue a point. Thus, if professional journalists and freelance bloggers hold matching skill sets and a shared desire to advance the course of human knowledge, the difference between them seems largely arbitrary.
If this distinction is indeed artificial, it becomes incumbent upon professional journalists to offer a tangible difference between themselves and those who would aspire to their station. Unfortunately, this issue has devolved into one of money, rather than an accounting of expertise. The expectation of monetary compensation for professionals, but not amateur contributors, seems like the only attempt that the Huffington Post, or any other media outlet, has made to draw a distinction between “real” journalists and everybody else who puts pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. While that draws a line in the sand, it doesn’t answer why professionals are more deserving of their title than a skilled amateur.
Having written for free far more often than I’ve written “professionally”, I wholly empathize with the plight of unpaid contributors. It is my firm belief that those who take the time to write should be paid commensurate to their abilities. Will paying contributors hasten the redundancy of professional journalists? I don’t think so. If anything, affording skilled amateurs a sense of professional courtesy, and some small compensation, could foster a spirit of cooperation and hybrid journalism.
However, if the media outlets of the world, even so-called new media, insist on maintaining their twentieth century view of the media as a social monolith, they do so at their own peril. If the lessons of history reflect anything, it is that a minority has only a finite amount of time to marginalize a majority.
Adam Shaftoe, M.A. – but not in journalism.