Rory Cellan-Jones, BBC’s Technology Correspondent, explains how Twitter has transformed his journalism but also reveals his scepticism about social media.
How to become an all-purpose journalist
In 1983 when he started his career with BBC North Look, there was a huge split in the newsroom; with the craft workers – the cameramen, soundsmen and technicians – on one side and the writers – the reporters, producers and editors – on the other. This is no longer the case; fewer and fewer people are being employed to do the same amount of work, spawning a new hybrid – the all-purpose journalist.
Journalists no longer just find a story and write it; they now shoot video, edit video and audio, create digital stories, engage with and talk to their audience, advertise and distribute their work online, even package and advertise themselves. “BE MULTI-SKILLED” is the command of the moment, but I haven’t yet evolved into this mutant journalist – a one stop news creating machine – so the transformation process is a more than a little daunting. So here’s a reassuring word from Rory Cellan-Jones: “Don’t get to frightened by the image of the all-purpose journalist”, he says, “it’s more important that you develop a specialism.”
A specialism! – Now you’re telling me I have to become a specialist one stop, non-stop news creating machine. Maybe Rory senses the despair so he clarifies: “You don’t have to become an ultra-specialist, just someone who can provide added value that the audience can’t get anywhere else.” Rory doesn’t see himself a technology expert, recognising that there are a great number of people who know a lot more than him, but what he does do extremely well is to communicate complex stories in a simple way. That’s his specialism. But if you just take a brief look at the comments left by readers on his blog, they are often far from complementary. This is what today’s journalist must accept and embrace; there will always be someone who knows more than you and they are now ready, even encouraged, to tell you you’re wrong.
You and your audience
In Rory’s early career the split within the newsroom was nothing compared to chasm between journalists and their readers. Rory explains: “People who called to complain were treated as madmen!” Throughout the media industry there was an attitude that the audience should sit there and get what they were given. Nowadays publications, with more than a slight whiff of desperation, plead with their audiences to get in touch, to join the debate, to have their say. This reflects the dramatic change within the media industry; audiences are no longer sitting ducks, the sheer amount of information that people have access to via the Internet has made them flighty, impatient and demanding. To get loyal readers you need to engage with them, talk to them and most of all listen to their criticism. You don’t have to agree with them, but when has interesting debate ever been based on agreement? To engage with your audience you must first actively engage with social media.
Social media – what is it good for?…
Rory, the veteran tweeter, reveals that: “Twitter transformed my journalism.” He doesn’t just use it to keep in touch with his audience, but to find out what’s happening in the technology field, to source information and to promote his journalism. Having said this he is very aware of its limitations: “A lot of social media just reflects mainstream media”, he explains. This repetition of news and information may not seem like such a problem, but if people start getting all their news second-hand through social media or news aggregators (like MSN and Google for example) then what happens to the journalist who did all the work to get the story and to the publication that broke it? Is it true that “the parasite is slowly killing the host” as David Simon, author and journalist, has argued?
Social media helps journalists do their job better and more efficiently, but the old business structures that the media industry has rested on are breaking under the strain of social media and news aggregators. Everyone appears to agree that change is needed, but just how, when and in what form this change will come is yet to be decided.