How many more years will need to pass before we can stop calling digitally networked media “new”?
After all, this year’s graduating class of students—and most of their generation—have spent their entire news-consuming and producing lives in a digitally networked environment.
This digitally networked environment has not only transformed how professional journalists do their jobs—or how news organizations package and disseminate news. Journalism has been globalized and democratized as never before. It has gone from something done almost exclusively by professionals to an activity in which any concerned citizen can potentially engage.
Today you are just as likely to learn about events in a remote country from a citizen journalist or freelancer from that country than from a Western foreign correspondent.
One of the most important news photos of 2009—of a young Iranian protestor named Neda as she lay dying on a street in Tehran—was taken by a protestor with a cameraphone. The Arab Spring was initially sparked by citizen reporting of protests that broke out in a small Tunisian town—where no foreign media was present and on which no professional media dared to report—after the self-immolation of a desperate young Tunisian fruit seller in late 2010.
The career path for a young aspiring journalist graduating today is much less clear than it was for me when I graduated from college in 1991. Back then, seasoned journalists 20 years older than myself dispensed clear advice that had not changed much over the course of a generation: work your way up from a local newspaper, or radio station, or TV station, prove yourself and eventually get a job at one of the top papers or broadcasters. Or start out as a stringer or a factchecker for a news magazine and hope they’d hire you as a full time writer or correspondent. Or if you had foreign language skills—as I did with Chinese—get on a plane and find whatever entry-level news assistant job you can in a foreign news bureau belonging to any American news organization that happens to be hiring when you arrive.
Two decades later, the number of news organizations with foreign bureaus, and full-time jobs with news organizations more generally, have shrunk dramatically. A young aspiring journalist today—and many older ones whose job security has been disrupted by the digital revolution—must be much more entrepreneurial and flexible. We need to be able to develop our own personal brand and reputation through blogs, social media, and other channels. We must be prepared to freelance, launch or join startups, somehow find a way to do the work we love and believe is important, and also pay the rent.
A growing percentage of professional journalists in the United States and around the world are freelancers. According to the International Federation of Journalists, freelancers now make up the majority of paid journalists in some countries.
Meanwhile, the combined growth of both online and freelance journalism has led to a world in which professional journalists—alongside citizen-journalists who may have other professions but who use the Internet and mobile devices to report on events around them—are more vulnerable to arrest and death than ever.
In its annual report, the Committee to Protect Journalists informs us that in 2011, roughly half of the 179 journalists imprisoned around the world were working primarily online. And as the CPJ points out, many of these online journalists are freelancers or work for small, local news outlets. They do not have the resources of large institutions behind them.
What’s more, in 2011, one third of the 46 journalists killed in direct connection with their work around the world were freelance—which according to CPJ is more than twice the proportion that freelancers have constituted over time.
The events of last year underscored how important journalism is to people all around the world: the bearing of witness and the investigative reporting, conducted by professionals or amateur citizens or some mixture of the two, is vital if citizens anywhere are to have any hope of holding governments and companies accountable to the public interest.
Journalism students and journalism schools are for good reasons obsessed with the question of journalism’s uncertain future. Over the past several years since I left CNN and plunged into the experimental world of citizen media, I’ve been to numerous conferences about the future of journalism. The focus of many of the discussions ultimately ends up revolving around how major big-brand newspaper and broadcast companies can adapt their business models to the digital world.