Author and journalist Deborah Campbell spoke recently to IJNet about emerging trends in journalism, multimedia journalism and the future of media. Campbell is the author of This Heated Place, a narrative exploration of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia. She has written for The Economist, The New Scientist, _Ms._magazine, the Guardian and Asia Times, and recently reported for Harper's on the two months she spent "embedded" with Iraqi refugees. Over the past seven years, she has extensively chronicled the fault lines in the Middle East from Iran to Palestine, immersing herself for extended periods in the societies she writes about.
Excerpts from the interview follow:
IJNet: What are major emerging trends in journalism today? How are these trends transforming journalism? Deborah Campbell: Journalism right now is in a crisis. It -- if we can call media an "it" -- doesn't know what the future holds but it does know the old model is broken. A lot of this has to do, quite simply, with money. Who wants to pay for information if they can now get it for free through the Internet? Where are the advertising dollars? So the corporate model of journalism isn't working, but at the same time people are consuming more news than ever -- just not paying for it.
At the same time the web has opened up new modes of communication, as we know. And some bloggers are doing fantastic journalism. On the Middle East, for instance, academics like Juan Cole provide expert analysis that beats most journalism. But there is really no substitute for sending a journalist into the field to do actual reporting. I recently did a long feature in which I interviewed a communications director for the International Crisis Group. He was worried that without field reporting, without actual journalists on the ground who are trained and educated in the issues, we are not even hearing about international conflicts such as small wars. "Citizen journalism is like citizen dentistry," he said.
The feature I interviewed him for, "The Most Hated Name in News," was about Al Jazeera-English and its ambitions to be the biggest player in international TV journalism. Right now they are taking over because everyone else is cutting back, not sending out reporters, leaving a huge swath of the world with no journalism being done at all.
Tony Burman, their managing director, told me: “The mainstream American networks have cut their bureaus to the bone. They’re basically only in London now. Even CNN has pulled back. I remember in the ’80s when I covered these events, there would be a truckload of American journalists and crews and editors, and now Al Jazeera outnumbers them all.” So here you have a totally different model with a rich Middle Eastern state deciding to fund a news channel out of its own pockets. But clearly that's not going to happen in many other places.
IJNet: How about freelance journalism? Is there any hope that big news organizations will pay for good stories? DC: I met Seymour Hersh a couple of years ago. He is one of the great freelance journalists -- he's still a freelancer in his 70s -- and when he broke the story of the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, nobody would publish it. It was too hot to handle. So he had a friend pose as a wire service and send it to all the newspapers, so a bunch of them would publish it. You have to be innovative, but yes you can still find places that pay well, just fewer of them. And less space for investigative work. If you have to spend months on a story, as Hersh did, you are probably spending a lot of time you won't be paid for. I think there is more future in books than in newspaper reporting if you really want to do long-form investigative work.
IJNet: In journalism schools, students are learning to be multimedia journalists. Is this changing the way journalists work? DC: I see the trend toward turning out journalists who are kind of like one-stop shops. It probably favors a certain type of reporter -- one who can do twelve things at once. It's great if you can do it. Journalists should certainly try to be active in more than one medium in order to find a wider audience. For myself I like long-form narratives though I have also made documentaries for radio and taken photographs to go with my work. But I wouldn't want to introduce a video camera into every situation I encounter, particularly since I explore other cultures, often in conflict zones, and it would be highly unsafe to do that. I worry that by doing too many technical things at once, we end up with more superficial coverage of everything.
IJNet: How this would make stories superficial? DC: Maybe I am just trying to understand why so much coverage is superficial -- is it because the person who gets sent out is the techie rather than the journalist? Is it because she's messing her equipment and her lighting and her sound rather than focusing on what her subject is saying and the actual content of the story? Maybe I am trying to understand why we see so little actual journalism (as opposed to PR-generated stories, celebrity sightings, or useless fear mongering and fabricated controversies). At least in part it has something to do with budgets and tight deadlines and the attrition of qualified journalists who have been laid off because they were expensive.
I know of young "journalists" who tell me they have to re-write two or three press releases in a day, maybe doing a couple of phone calls to add in original quotes. It's like Dickensian factory labor. That's not journalism. It's cheap but it's not journalism. It is allowing groups with interests, groups who write the press releases and run the think tanks and the press conferences, to essentially control the flow of information. The studies I have seen on journalism in the UK, US and Canada all found that about 80 to 90 percent of news stories originate in public relations -- they came out of press conference or press release. That leaves 10 or 20 percent that are coming from the journalist going out there and finding a story -- and how many of those are challenging stories that help us to understand how to navigate he world?
IJNet: Imagine someone tells you that he/she is going to apply for a journalism school. What would you say? DC:I read a quote from Toby Young, the author of the book How to Lose Friends and Alienate People (about his time working for Vanity Fair magazine), and he said that anyone who goes into journalism at this point is either a moron or a romantic -- probably both. It's a funny quote, and hard to dispute.
If you are going into this profession it needs to be a vocation -- a mission -- it has to mean something to you personally, and you will have to work very hard to do the work that matters to you. I know it can be done, because others and I are doing it. But you should have no expectations that it will be easy or that you will find a nice staff job making a good living, at least not for a while. You should also be sure you are doing the work that is important to you, which is why the freelance option is a good one -- perhaps the only one, given how many staffers who are much older and more qualified are now unemployed. The model is changing but you can be the future. Try to live with your parents for as long as you can or marry rich (again, only partly joking).
The great journalists I know are making it on their own. They are going after the stories, often without assignments, often moving to difficult countries if they want to do foreign correspondence as I do, and then producing work people want and need. They aren't waiting for someone to send them.
IJNet: Should they go to law or business school and forgo journalism? DC:I think business school is looking about as promising as journalism school right now. The future is very uncertain in most industries, but your expectations should be realistic and you should be prepared to make sacrifices. Unless your dad owns a media conglomerate, you won't walk into a $70K a year salary, and you may not have steady work for the first few years. Unless you are very productive and very lucky, you may have to have another job on the side in order to afford to do the work you want to do and spend the time it takes to do it well. But in my experience there is no other work that is more rewarding. It's the best life I can imagine.
Visit Deborah Campbell's website here