While this won't help the judges, you can be certain that earnest attempts to define a journalist in legal terms will lead to nothing but confusion. The Americans, with their black letter law pedantry, just love debates of this kind because it keeps much of the legal profession in business.
Ask Google what a journalist is and you'll get something like this:
- The collecting, writing, editing, and presenting of news or news articles in newspapers and magazines and in radio and television broadcasts.
- Material written for publication in a newspaper or magazine or for broadcast.
- The style of writing characteristic (my emphasis) of material in newspapers and magazines, consisting of direct presentation of facts or occurrences with little attempt at analysis or interpretation.
Meanwhile, a painstakingly researched, brilliantly written, fact-filled offering like that of Scott Steel, in his Possum Comitatus persona, is a mere piece of blogging. Steel's article on the media-propagated myths about the Australian economy is as good as, indeed better than, 90 per cent of the content masquerading as economic journalism in the mainstream media. It sheds light on a complex issue, it supports its arguments with facts, it provides historical perspective and it is written in a lively and engaging style that most people can enjoy. I call that journalism.
To add a personal note, I was employed as a journalist in the mainstream media for 26 years - starting out in radio, then moving to the wire services, television, newspapers and online media. I moved out of the media into corporate communications five years ago, but still think like and, still consider myself, a journalist. I write about public issues with the hope of gaining an audience. I support my arguments with links, facts and background and sometimes bring to people's attention a perspective that might not previously have encountered or considered.
Granted, I am no longer paid as a journalist (and bashed out this piece in my lunch hour). And I don't (for the most part) do original reporting. But then neither do many of the popular columnists and commentators in our daily papers. The difference with this blog is that because I am not paid for what I do, I am under no pressure to be deliberately provocative or sensational for linkbait that attracts eyeballs to paid advertisements. And I'm not writing to suit a proprietor's worldview or agenda.
Another frequently heard argument against bloggers as journalists is that blogs, unlike MSM journalism, are not edited and do not undergo the rigorous system of fact-checking and quality control that sub-editors provide. For insiders, I can deal with that in one word: Pagemasters. For those outside the industry, that means sub-editing is a dying occupation and, like Qantas, newspapers are outsourcing quality control to low-cost labour. As a result, there are now almost as many typos, howlers and unfiltered rubbish on newspapers' print editions and websites as there is on the worst blog. And badly paid and overworked journalists find themselves under pressure to just pump out more verbiage irrespective of quality.
Yes, there are some pretty awful blogs out there, full of half-formed or bastardised ideas that represent little more than a dummy spit or a vanity project (just as there are quite a few newspaper columns with similar characteristics). But there are some pretty good blogs as well that feature reasoned and expert perspectives on current issues, that respect the intelligence of readers and that are not compromised by commercial objectives.
Ultimately, we are having this debate because the traditional distribution platforms for journalism - print and broadcast - are gradually being made redundant by new technology. The media has been disintermediated and experts can reach audiences independently of people formerly employed to filter those views through the industrial word factories that were 20th century newsrooms. The better blogs - like Possum or Club Troppo or Larvatus Prodeo - are achieving this with a similar level of quality of content, design and utility that you will get from any respected traditional media outlet.
My own view is that the market will sort this one out. As dead tree newspapers and old broadcast media slowly die, journalists are going to have to reinvent themselves as entrepreneurs and sole agents and collectives - just as musicians have had to do this last decade amid the slow death of the traditional recording business. As the old technology is cast aside, new opportunities will arise. Whether they will make much money is the big question. But that doesn't mean they won't have a social use. As The Economist magazine wrote recently, the internet is taking the news industry back to the coffee house culture of the 18th century. News has become a social medium, not a one-way publishing industry where large institutions sell content to a passive populace.
In the meantime, as the old media sinks or swims, the public will choose to do what they always have done. They will gravitate to those sources of information and commentary that they trust the most. If that content adds independent perspective on public issues and backs that up with facts, context and background in a compelling way, it will be journalism - regardless of the platform.
(See also: 'When Does a Blogger Become a Journalist?' - Fiona Martin, senior lecturer in convergent and online media, University of Sydney, and Tim Dwyer, senior lecturer in the department of media and communications, also University of Sydney, provide some detail around the legal status of bloggers in Australia).