July 29, 2004

THE PRIESTS are nervous.

UPDATE: Reader Dexter Van Zile has further thoughts. Click “more” to read them.

Van Zile writes:

An opening caveat: I’m speaking as someone who never went to j-school, but who has a master’s in political science from what used to be a state teachers college in Washington. I’ve been a fulltime journalist since the end of 1995 and a fulltime freelancer since the end of 1998.

My take:

The internet has changed the status of journalists by exposing them to market forces and allowing the audience to exert greater accountability over their work. I like to be able to slack off as much as the next guy and hate people looking over my shoulder, but I can’t argue with the notion that we are better off because of these two forces and that the quality and quantity of information available to people has improved substantially since the world wide web (what a quaint, but accurate phrase that is!) has exploded.

What are the j-school profs afraid of? The notion that information has become a commodity, a cheap abundant commodity that can be created and moved by anyone with a computer. Writing, reporting, journalism and participating in the public discourse is no longer the exclusive purview of a small number of trained gatekeepers and elites, but is now available to people with no training, no fear and no literary pretensions. And some of them really do kick ass.

As one of those gatekeepers whose status has been diminished by the internet still (I’m a relatively successful freelance journalist who makes a modest living) I can tell you that frankly I am jealous of the journalists who came of age in the pre-Internet era when it comes to money and prestige. I have no way of knowing, but I imagine I would have done pretty well in an environment where information was controlled by a guild of journalists and a cartel of publishers. The internet will destroy both of those institutions, just as technology has eliminated jobs in the manufacturing sector.

But even as I acknowledge the ongoing change of status for journalists, I have to admit that as a whole, the world is better off with the “pack, not a herd” system of information creation, distribution and consumption. All that training and inculcation of journalistic values really didn’t much when it came to weeding out people like Jason Blair, now did it? It didn’t stop the circulation scandals, did it? Just look at how many institutions have been subject to greater scrutiny since the creation of the internet. Priestly classes everywhere are getting the snot kicked out of them by a pack, not a herd. And thank God they are.

All these j-school types will talk till their blue in the face about the importance of protecting the market place of ideas and the need for free and open discourse, but ultimately, they fear the internet despite and because of its being a more efficient marketplace of ideas. They are scared to death of what they say they are trying to protect.


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