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January 31, 2006

"Professional" Journalism?

Donald Pittenger writes:

Dear Blowhards --

If you're like me and use Instapundit at lot, you’ve noticed links to posts dealing with pre-Internet news media and how the practitioners are coping with the Internet in general and bloggers in particular. For example, Jeff Jarvis deals with this topic quite a lot.

I get the impression that print (especially) and broadcast (somewhat) journalists are pretty concerned about the future of news and the role of their own medium. As well they should, given round after round of layoffs. (As I write this [30 January 2000] I see on Matt Drudge's site that Time is about to lay off 50 staffers.)

One reaction is to beat their chests, proclaiming that it is only they themselves who are truly competent to gather, digest, and disseminate news. Bloggers are riff-raff, while we are professionals. (I exaggerate, but the gist holds, I think.)

Is journalism a profession? Some think so. For instance, there's an organization called the Society of Professional Journalists.

I'm inclined to peg journalism as a craft, not a profession.

What, really, does it take to do journalism? For one thing, the writing mechanics are not demanding. The Army crammed the basics into me over a span of only eight weeks at the Army Information School. As best I remember, I got a smattering of history (actually, I already knew that stuff), a whiff of broadcasting (I was in the print end of things and the radio guys got a lot more of broadcasting), a bigger whiff of public relations practice ("full disclosure, minimum delay") and a daily session devoted to news writing. Oh, we also got a tour of The New York Times' digs on West 43rd Street.

As best I can tell, most of the rest of everyday journalism is a matter of temperament (curiosity, initiative, tenacity), experience and mentoring. Aside perhaps from becoming, say, a science specialist, I see no strong reason why a journalist even needs to have a college degree, let alone a journalism MS from Columbia University. Lord knows reporters in the pre-World War 2, Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur "golden age" included few of the Ivy League guys that seem to have become prized in recent decades at the NYT and other elite rags.

I'm not sure I want to get into detail about professions and professional licensing. Leaving aside "the world's oldest," there are classical professions such as law, medicine and, more recently, engineering. Medicine deals with life and death. Now that a good deal of scientific knowledge has become integral to the field, it makes good sense to license physicians. Much of engineering is science-based and relates to large health and financial risks (will the building stand up to a Mag-8.5 quake), so it too deserves license status.

From this point, things get murkier. Each state has its set of activities requiring licenses, some making more sense than others. In many cases, lobbying for establishment of a license strikes me as little more than an attempt to create a protective guild for practitioners, the main motivation being creation of barriers to outsiders who might bid down costs. But it boils down to an eye-of-the-beholder thing: you know a profession when you see one.

A couple decades ago there was some talk of trying to make demography, my own field, a profession. Unfortunately, I forget what the motivation for this was. But the matter didn't get far at the time, the consensus being that possession of the right academic credentials would suffice for professional self-identification. I dropped my membership in the main demographic association perhaps 15 years ago (mainly because it didn't seem cost-effective), so possibly something has happened on this front more recently without me knowing about it. I would oppose professionalization should anyone care to ask for my opinion.

As for journalists, rather than professionalizing, I think they'd be better served by ego-reduction therapy.



posted by Donald at January 31, 2006


Journalism is a profession in the sense that it involves (or should involve) a fairly extensive set of ethical standards. Not to mention the fact that many people consider it a somewhat higher calling than a more craft-style occupation.

Posted by: Peter on January 31, 2006 11:07 PM

Q:What's the definition of a "professional"?

A: You've got to pay their bill whether or not they actually help you, unlike, say, a plumber who can't get your toilet unclogged or a leak stopped.

All kidding aside, I can understand why journalists would like to become a profession. The governmental nexus has certainly been good to the Big Three. In Medicine there is both reduced competition as a result of government licensing and multi-hundred billion dollar subsidies via Uncle Sam, at a minimum doubling medical salaries. In Law the profession gets to serve as the lucrative gatekeeper to a wildly uncertain governmental conflict resolution system (note that uncertainty is very good for legal fees--who would need lawyers if the outcomes of lawsuits were relatively certain and predictable?) and an ever-more complex (read, internally contradictory) set of laws and regulations. In Accountancy licensing again reduces competiton and the grotesquely complex tax code is the essential driver forcing industry to utilize their services--to say nothing of the very lucrative governmentally granted privilege of enabling securities fraud.

Oddly, the profession that actually adds the most value to society, engineering, gets the least out of the government. Not sure what to make of that.

So assuming that one could get a deal like the one that the Big 3 have wangled out of the government, who wouldn't want one's livelihood to become a "profession"? Less competition, and, with luck, a governmental compulsion to use one's services. Sounds good to me.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 1, 2006 1:46 AM

What I find alarming about the cackles of glee that one finds in many blogs about the demise of the mainstream media (especially in political blogs) is the fact that the large majority of blog stories use a MSM story as their starting point (this blog being a notable exception).

Essentially the MSM story provides the primary story, and then the facts of the story are endlessly analysed by the blogs. I often find the analysis in the blogs to be far more interesting than the original story, but without someone actually *paying* real money to dig up the facts, little new gets discovered.

I strongly without the mainstream media's presence, many blogs would slowly wither. But then again, I've never figured out why the respect of the MSM is *so* important to so many bloggers. You'd think the respect of their readers would be what they care about.

Posted by: Tom West on February 1, 2006 6:48 AM

"...many people consider it a somewhat higher calling than a more craft-style occupation."
Yes, but how many of those people aren't journalists?

Posted by: Paco Wové on February 1, 2006 9:25 AM

I don't think that's enough to say that engineers should be licensed (side-note - there actually is an engineering licensure, but it's somewhat optional). Projects with large risks (bridges, skyscrapers) have the resources to check out engineering firms and make sure they're up to snuff. And those firms can charge more for their engineers. There's enough information out there for the market to work.

That's different than medicine. The general public isn't qualified to evaluate the quality of health care, so some other evaluation system is needed.

Posted by: ptm on February 1, 2006 10:32 AM

If there had been a category of well-paid jobs which licensed demographers could have claimed a monopoly on, demographer licensing would have caught on. But as you found, there wasn't.

There are jobs now for archaeologists and anthropologists relating to excavations which dig up ancient sites, respect for Native American traditions and rights, and so on. I'd be curious whether licensing is in the works; it hasn't happened so far as far as I know.

In social services and education licensing and certification have mushroomed. My sister is licensed in family counseling but has worked in family counseling for years. Recently a law was passed which might require her to go back to school to retrain -- quite possibly by taking classes from research types with no hands-on experience.

Tom West is right on one of the most important points. In order to originate news you basically need someone paid full-time with a travel allownce and an expense account. Blogs probably will replace columnists and editorial writers, and they make the people who layout newspapers much less important. (You can't hide anything on page B17 any more). But freelancers sitting at home, by and large, can't write real news stories in their spare time.

Without licensing so far, there's been a tendency to hire journalists from a better academic background recently. This has coincided with a decline in the quality of journalism. Many college students learn very early that networking and connections are the way to go, and that knowledge is not too important. Now that they've become repectable, journalists now also tend to presume on the authority of their position.

Brad DeLong has pointed out that the cult of the generalist in journalism leads to disaster when you end up with reporters on economics or government who have little understanding of economics and government. I am a big advocate of generalism, but I mean people who are able to study anything. I don't mean people who know a little bit about everything and are good at winging it, which is what we get.

If I were writing about economics for a newspaper, I'd spend all my spare time for at least six months boning up, and I'm not starting from complete ignorance, either.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 1, 2006 10:35 AM

I disagree with Friedrich about medicine. Medical economics is a swamp, but I'm impressed with medicine itself. My mother's last fifteen were made incomparably better by reconstructive hip surgery which wasn't available 30 years ago.

I've also lived in a place (Taiwan) where medical licensing is very haphazard, and there are lots of horror stories. One ended with the dissected patient being found in a garbage bag in a dumpster; another ended with a dead child who'd been given a traditional medicine which was 2% lead.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 1, 2006 10:41 AM


Professions are jobs where the professional has a body of knowledge that the general public would not easily be able to understand, even with some study. It was therefore determined that they should have a fiduciary responsibility to the public to use that knowledge ethically and in the best interests of their clients AND the general public. All professions have codes of ethics to which they are supposed to adhere. So the state issues licenses based on competency and enforces the ethical codes through suspension and removal of licesnses to those who break the codes. As an engineer myself, I rarely see anyone trying to skirt those ethics, unlike some other professions.

Is journalism a profession? How could it be? What arcane body of knowledge do they possess? Sounds like puffery to me, kind of like when people call sales brochures "literature". Puffery is now pervasive. People call themselves "professional musicians". What the hell does that mean? They just make a living playing music. They have no fiduciary responsibilities to the general public.

Posted by: Brian Minder on February 1, 2006 11:35 AM

Mr. Emerson:

I'm not dissing advances in medical technology. I'm not even arguing that licensure doesn't make for some degree of quality control in health care (albeit at what I would argue is an unnecessarily high price.) I'm just saying that all these things, coupled with the enormous subsidies, direct and indirect offered to medicine by the U.S. public sector--estimated by the Economist in the current issue to account for at least 60% of the total dollars in the sector--have all been darn good for physician incomes. Remember, doctors as a group take almost exactly 20 cents on the total health care dollar, and have done so quite consistently for the past 30 years. So when total health care expenditures go up, so do doctors' (average) incomes. And as for the absence of economic risk for doctors...well, when's the last time you saw a medical "going out of business" sale?

Hey, it's good to be a professional...!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on February 1, 2006 11:40 AM

I don't even want journalism to be a profession. I'd rather it be a scrappy, catch-as-catch can thing, inhabited and "practiced" by people with guts and their feet on the ground.

I've got a journalist friend (old coot like me) who hates what's become of journalism -- the whole young-professional side of it, the Ivy League-ism of it, etc. In his view, Watergate was the turning point, and the Boomers were the culprits. Journalists -- oh, let's call 'em "reporters" instead -- looked like glamorous heroes; it looked like you could be a sexy player, not just a hard-drinking grunt. And the Boomers loved everything to do with the media. So, really for the first time, respectable college grads from middle-class (and above) backgrounds started targeting the field -- which in a way is (in a practical sense) what turns a field into "a profession."

In my friend's version of the story, reporting used to be something that grumbly people who couldn't fit in elsewhere or otherwise somehow fell into. Downside: not very "professional." Upside: lots of feet-on-the-ground common sense. Now we've got journalism schools and degrees, lots of people who think it must be a great job (fools!) ... It's become a professionalized, yuppie-ish field, one that you've got to break into, find mentors in, etc. Sad, at least as far as I'm concerned. The great figures in American journalism's past were often crusty, go-it-your-own-way types, and that element in their personalities was part of what made their work so wonderful. These days journalism's a lot more sleek and streamlined, but has a lot less character.

I agree with Tom West too: to a large extent, the newsy end of the blogosophere is parasitical on bigtime journalism. It ain't cheap maintaining a bureau in Beirut or Bangkok, and without 'em how are any of us going to get our hard news, our basic facts about the world? So, while I'm happy that many new channels have opened up for chatting about things, I can't share the glee some people seem to show about the business troubles at the big-media places. Do we really want to kill the goose the lays the golden eggs? On the other hand, Donald's line about how journalists could use some "ego-reduction therapy" is a good one too ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 1, 2006 11:58 AM

I think something becomes "professional" when (a) people do it fulltime and (b) get paid for it. You hear about "professional dancers" and "professional psychics" and even "professional strippers." I agree---it becomes a "respectable profession" when Ivy Leaguers decide to go for it---which Woodward and Bernstein being portrayed by Redford and Hoffman did for "journalism". I mean---9 out of 10 Miss America finalists wanted to be a "news anchor." It's a role to play, like they used to want to be actresses or figure skaters (that's another one---"professional figure skater").

I think people place too much emphasis on the word---professionalism is in how the work is done, not in whether there was a "major" at your university. I went to a small liberal arts school, one that has produced two editors in chief of the Wall Street Journal and several Pulitzers. It also is the founding place of Sigma Delta Chi, which is the society of professional journalists. It has no journalism major at all. A guy I know who is a columnist for the Chicago Trib says its what makes so many successful reporters come out of our school---people do it because they stumble onto it, and discover they love it, just be working on the student newspaper or the student radio station. If there was a "journalism" major, the editor jobs at the paper would all be filled by upper class journalism majors, and someone like him--a political science major who originally thought about law school---never world have gotten a chance.

Posted by: annette on February 1, 2006 12:22 PM

Lots and lots of interesting comments, so let me cherry-pick some responses...

Tom -- Hard to tell how things will play out, but most of the serious bloggers I read recognize that blogs tend to provide more commentary than reporting. For example, see today's [01 Feb 2006] post "Newspapers Fight Back" by John Hinderaker at -- in particular the last third or so. [For future readers, go to the blog's Archives and select the month, then scroll to near the bottom.]

On the other hand, some attempts are being made to have on-site bloggers do reporting. Given that nearly all bloggers aren't self-supported by blogging, this is likely to be too hapazard to work (though some stable pay mechanism might emerge later). John Emerson also mentions this defect, above.

Current conventional wisdom (see Jeff Jarvis) is that newspapers will have to adapt to lower readership and diverted revenue streams (such as classified ads going online). Again, the final result of such adaptation is unclear. Jarvis suggests that bits of content that attract only a few readers might be junked to save expensive paper and ink.

I think the blogger glee you mention comes from years of seeing ill-concealed news manipulation by the MSM and now the MSM meltdown. I suspect many or most of those same bloggers would be happy to see the MSM playing the news straighter; Hugh Hewitt contends that some LA Times circulation loss is due to political bias on news pages and that cleaning up its act might bring some readers back.

Michael -- You stole my comment thunder by introducing the term "reporter." "Journalist" strikes me as being one of those fancy-schmancy terms introduced to give an occupation a stratification upgrade. On the news side of a paper, that's what they should be doing -- reporting what happened when and where to whom. If a scandal results as a byproduct, well that's just fine, but it shouldn't be the starting point.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on February 1, 2006 4:10 PM

I'm just waiting for professional strippers to go Ivy League.

Posted by: ptm on February 1, 2006 7:20 PM

She already has! It's one of my fave good-bad books...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on February 1, 2006 7:24 PM

Brian is absolutely correct on what constitutes a profession. Would George Stephanopoulos have been allowed to walk straight out of the White House and begin operating on someone or arguing a case in court?

Posted by: Pat Hobby on February 2, 2006 1:01 AM

The claim to be a professional is a whole different thing. When I worked at McDonald's for $1.25 / hr in 1967, we were told to act "professionally". They meant we were to be businesslike, falsely friendly, and otherwise impersonal.

Professionalization means autonomy and restricted entry into the profession, on the basis of highly specialized knowledge. It's a kind of monopoly, and even at best there's a down side. Journalists don't have that kind of specialized knowledge.

One theory is that after the sixties and Watergate, the movers and shakers decided that they had to recruit "opinion makers" such as journalists, and that upscaling them was part of the strategy. Journalists are now inside players just like government officials or political party officials.

I hate to say this, because every time I do it ruins my fun here for a few months, but the idea of liberal media bias is totally bogus. It's just an attempt to indimidate the media with noise. There was no liberal or Democratic media bias, even from the NYT or WaPo, on the bogus Clinton impeachment, on the Bush-Gore campaign, or on the bogus runup to the Iraq war. In all three cases the media uncritically printed Republican propaganda, though in the Iraq case most Democrats caved in to Bush too.

A contemporary case is Abramoff. Before he started getting a bad name, everyone knew that Abramoff was a big-time Republican. DeLay said so, Norquist said so, everyone said so. Now that he's a grafting felon and implicated in a gangland killing, we're being told that he was bipartisan. But he wasn't.

And this is to say nothing about Fox, the Washington Times, or talk radio, which are hard-core Republican, or talk TV, which tends Republican.

Posted by: John Emerson on February 2, 2006 11:42 AM

On a lighter note, through my son and his friends I've met a few strippers, and they're not much different than other women their age except somewhat better looking. Many have the same kinds of problems as musicians (substances and crazy sex), but many are also working their way through school or buying houses and sending their kids to school.

It's a trade and not a profession, but the ones who make the most money have learned a bunch of tricks and are reliable workers (not just hot looking). I don't know how much prostitution there is, but most aren't going that way, I think. (Here and Portland it's legal but highly regulated. "Escorts" are an alternative career track). You can assume that they're social liberals and most of them like to show off and get attention.

I tried to do the numbers and never got anywhere, but at 7 pm on a weekend night there have to be a few hundred strippers and escorts at work in the Portland area (pop. about a million). Multiply it out through the week, considering that women don't stay in the biz all their life, and 1% of the area population has to be strippers and escorts (or ex-).

Posted by: John Emerson on February 2, 2006 12:03 PM

As for journalists, rather than professionalizing, I think they'd be better served by ego-reduction therapy.

Quite so. Happily, the market is already providing such therapy, though many journalists haven't yet noticed.

Posted by: Jonathan on February 2, 2006 1:00 PM

As for journalists, rather than professionalizing, I think they'd be better served by ego-reduction therapy.

Quite so. Happily, the market is already providing such therapy, though many journalists haven't yet noticed.

Posted by: Jonathan on February 2, 2006 1:01 PM

I not only agree with those who have said journalists need ego reduction, I are a professional journalist! (copy editor). I agree with Michael's curmudgeonly friend about the abysmal state of the "profession." (In my mind, the William Atherton character in the first two "Die Hard" movies was startlingly accurate: He had a line about getting a good table at some restaurant because he was "friends" with the chef. "I interviewed him once.") We have New York Times reporters (not columnists) out doing graduation speeches every spring about public policy. Ridiculous. Abhorrent. There are nearly zero special skills involved in journalism, and the ones that are important, such as trying to objectively record what people say, have been swallowed up by a tide of "advocacy journalism," whatever the hell that is. If the MSM completely disappear, which won't happen anyway, it won't be a huge deal. Bloggers are mostly like columnists or commentators now, but many are real reporters. The main problem with the new advocacy -- and we've all heard all the many hideous examples of this in recent years -- is that the MSM are no more accurate than original sources. If bloggers were commenting on and correcting original reports rather than MSM reports of original reports from, say, the government, we wouldn't lose much in terms of accuracy or truth.

Posted by: Kent on February 7, 2006 2:11 PM

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