“If you don’t think you’re a freelancer, think again”: Kim Pittaway

Technology: we can’t ignore it, but we can’t let it replace quality journalism, either. Ira Basen, Kim Pittaway and Claire Brownell talk about social media branding, the challenge of work tweeting and why everyone will soon become freelancers. Martha Troian reports.

“For 25 years now I belonged to a very special club and that very privileged club is called journalism,” CBC radio host and producer Ira Basen told a roomful of people at Carleton University this week. Membership in this special club has allowed him to cover the House of Commons, World Bank, the Olympics and even the National Hobo Convention.

“Anybody could stream a video,” he said, “anybody could collect audio, anybody could write a story, but the ability to distribute that to the world  — it required an infrastructure that was very, very limited.”

“That’s the way it use to be.”

Carleton University was the site of “Tweet and Shout: How Media is Shakin’ Up Journalism”, a discussion focused on new media and its evolving influence on today’s  journalists.Panelists included Basen, Ryerson University instructor and journalist Kim Pittaway, Ottawa Citizen reporter Claire Brownell and Canadian Press parliamentary reporter Steve Rennie.  Each shared their thoughts and concerns regarding the media landscape today and how they see social media shaking up the industry.

For Basen, the ever-expanding and much less exclusive new media world is particularly concerning. He says that of the hundreds arrested during the G20 protests in Toronto, many called themselves journalists.“Who are these people? Who are these ‘journalists’?” he asks. “They are not members of the club. These are members of an entirely different club. A club that everybody can join.” Basen says the crucial difference is the operation of rules and standards among these two groups.

According to Basen, mainstream journalists — the “1.0 group” — filter and publish with the guidance of an editor; a group of journalists who believe it is better to be right than first. He says it’s a process that emphasizes verification.

The ‘other’ journalists, what Basen calls the “2.0 group”, publish and filter with no guidance from an editor. They are a group of independent journalists who believe it is better to be first than right.

He says these 2.0 journalists publish information they have at the moment, with their community of readers acting as the verification process.“It’s a very different way of thinking about journalism,” said Basen. “I do think we need to consider what the implications of this kind of shift are. Because as I say, if everyone is a journalist, then nobody’s going to be a journalist — and that’s going to have repercussions.”

Reporter Steve Rennie classified himself as a “1.5 journalist” based on how stories unfold at the Canadian Press; a story emerges, a live hit is done, a radio clip filed, and a video clip is produced depending on the significance of the story. “We are constantly building our story throughout the day,” he says. But recently, he says, a new step has been added to that process — a tweet.

“What’s happening now with Twitter is it’s almost replaced ‘the wire’ — news that comes out on Twitter is a lot more immediate. There is this immediacy that we can’t even compete with.” Because of rapid change in the news industry due to advancing technologies, Rennie explained, the approach to collecting and distributing news at the Canadian Press also had to change. “I think it’s remarkable that in less than two years you can see a shift like that, and I wonder what it will be like in another two years.” (CP just got three new owners, so change is imminent.)

Claire Brownell, a recent Carleton Master of Journalism graduate and now a reporter with the Ottawa Citizen, explained how she is forced to work in multimedia  platformsand think with a ‘digital mindset.’ “We’ve been told to no longer think of it as a print product but as a digital product, that the web is the first place we are supposed to think of in terms of where our story is going,” she said. “We are not supposed to save the good stuff for print — we’re supposed  toget it out there and get it out there fast.”

According to Brownell, the Citizen now employs a social media editor who pushes the news team to use Twitter every day on every hour. “It is being drilled into our heads to tweet everything. For every assignment we do, for every breaking news event.”

It’s a task Brownell says can be daunting. “I have to admit, I am always scared that I am going to tweet something that is going to get me into trouble because it is sorta like walking on a tight rope with no safety rope on the web. There is nobody editing them, there is no filter,” she said.

“Right now, only an informal social media policy exists and that is, ‘use common sense and don’t screw up.’”

(Ed: If you want a framework to refer to, read the Canadian Association of Journalists’ policies on retweeting and unpublishing.) 
But despite these fears, Brownell says, there are advantages to using Twitter. Work can be less demanding since she can rely on her tweets as her notes. When another reporter from a different media outlet is chasing the same story, Brownell says she ends up saving leg work by reading that reporter’s tweets. Brownell says that categorizing “1.0 journalists vs 2.0 journalists,” or new media versus traditional media, is misleading.

“I think we too often talk about new media versus traditional media as if there is a big split between the two, like they are two totally different things – Journalism 1.0 and Journalism 2.0 (and I’m going to use my favourite ten-dollar word from writing undergraduate papers) — I think that is a false dichotomy.”

“I don’t think it is so easy to file them into these two separate categories,” she says, “It is a new tool to do what journalists have always done. Digital media is still content — it’s still editorial content — it’s just a different way of doing things” she concludes.

Kim Pittaway told the audience that she never imagined working with such a diverse mix of multimedia and social media tools.She says she understands that a journalist needs to be a ‘multimedia platform juggling journalist,’ one who needs to create a brand for oneself, but she cautions against relying solely on establishing a reputation or presence using social media. “A brand without substance is just puffery,” Pittaway said, “Particularly for students. You are not going to have a brand by just having a Twitter account.”

“You have to do the work. You need to be doing the reporting, you need to be doing the writing, the research, the analysis, doing the work which then forms the basis of the brand that you are going to create,”she cautions. “It’s not just the people on the bottom of the food chain that are being asked to do that. None of us have the luxury of being afraid of the equipment anymore. Everybody needs to figure out how to use the equipment. But the equipment is still a tool. It is not going to help you if you are a shitty reporter.”

Pittaway says social media is something a journalist will have to learn to use on their own free time. She says one must take the time to learn multimedia skills because it will help the journalist through the transition period the industry is currently experiencing, and to transition successfully.“Frankly in the journalism world that we live in, we are all one tiny step away from being a freelancer — if you don’t think you’re a freelancer, think again.”

“We all need to develop those skills because they make you more marketable. It’s either get on the bus or get run over by the bus.”Once a journalist is marketable, Pittaway says, a journalist can tap into new markets. Of course you can get lost trying to chase the next big thing, and there’s no guarantee that any technology or social media tool is going to have staying power (read: MySpace). But given the array of new social media, Pittaway closes her speech with an acronym, something she feels pretty sure there will only be more of in coming years: YAFSMN — which stands for Yet Another Fucking Social Media Network.

Martha Troian is a Master of Journalism student at Carleton University.