Apocalypse 21: Arts and Crafts

By , 8 April, 2009, 3 Comments

In this ongoing series on news business models, I’ve maintained that journalism is a profession. To me, a profession means work with a public value, a defined code of conduct or methodology, and a mentality of prizing institutional goals over individual ones. Journalists in the mainstream media made the mistake of eroding the first criterion over the last two decades with lots of non-public-interest infotainment; citizen-media activists are eroding the other two by thumbing their nose at codes of conduct and staking their business models on individual permalancers.


One of my professors, Jonathan Knee, has written about the downgrading of banking from a professional calling to a trade with the rise of transactional over client models of doing business and defines a profession by the same three metrics I do:


“A profession is a job that owes obligations to society at large...It is the antithesis of the idea of a profession to argue that the standards to which investment banks once held themselves was simply an attribute of a grand financial bargain…our society’s increasing emphasis on celebrity, self-realization and personal wealth over more communal callings has reduced the social benefits associated with pursuing a higher professional calling.” (x)

I asked Knee the other day if he thought journalism was a profession and he, a media banker, said “No.” He thought it was an art, which I might define as self-realization that explicitly defies codes of conduct, and which might have some social benefits that are external to the purpose with which it is pursued. We fund the arts because we like to see art in museums, but the artists don’t produce explicitly for society’s benefit or according to professional norms. The models for journalism we hear floated most often these days–nonprofit trusts, licensing fees or micropayments–all mimic the way we finance the arts.

Not only is this conceptually problematic, but financially, it won’t work. Because the arts are non-professional, most artists do something else on the side to pay their bills, unless they are among the lucky few to get a big break (see above: individual self-realization over communal goals). Having every journalist do something else on the side would overtime erode their expertise about their beat and their commitment to journalistic codes of conduct; because good reporting (which, see above, is a public good) depends on those practices, turning journalists into artists is bad news.

There is perhaps a third way: journalism as craft, journalist as artisan. A craft is a job with a defined skill set, some training/apprenticeship and some social utility, but no obligation towards institutions. That’s a pretty solid conceptualization of how reporting should work, but I’m not yet sure what it means as a business model. My hunch is that it leads us to finance individual stories, instead of publications, but to finance stories by journalists who do reporting all the time, even if they migrate from outlet to outlet. As always, any thoughts on where this leads are most welcome.
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3 Responses {+}
  • S

    “Journalist-as-artisan” reminds me of the 18th century, when, as you know, printers *were* artisans or craftspeople, both in terms of social status and the physical labor required to operate a printing press. Not sure where that leaves you in terms of 21st century journalism, but the historian in me felt compelled to comment…

  • Preppy McPrepperson

    Thanks, S. I have been exploring the historical precedents for (re)defining journalism myself, though my knowledge doesn’t go back much further than the 1780s. I need to school up on the earlier stuff, and may solicit your expertise.

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