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Keen's misguided cult of the professional

I've kept running out of time to expand on why exactly I find it so worrying that Andrew Keen's Cult of the Amateur, where he explains how 'amateurs' such as bloggers are destroying our culture, is taken seriously, but this post over at Daily Kos (via Martin Stabe) made me sit down and string together my thoughts.

For one, it's ironic, isn't it, that Keen should choose journalism, of all professions, to embody the shrine of professionalism the "hot air" of amateurs supposedly blows down?

In Keen's own words: "the internet is bloated with the hot air of these amateur journalists. Despite the size of their readership, even the A-List bloggers have no formal journalistic training."

Now, leaving aside the factual inaccuracies of that statement, I must admit that, right here and now, I can't think of any other industry that harbours more latent scepticism to academia and formal training than the media.

Academia corrupts
It's often said that a journalist can be corrupted by too much academic training, can be such a thing as too much of a thinker, and the best of the lot are those who got into the trade at a young and tender age and learnt by doing, by the noble school of life, rather than 'wasted time' in academia.

One of my greatest, though also most unlikely, mentors, was, upon leaving school, offered both a scholarship to Oxford and a newspaper job. He chose the latter, and went on to work for institutions such as the Wall Street Journal and pioneer financial PR in Britain. An unschooled mind; flawed yet brilliant, imperfect yet successful, and a hell of a journalist to then end of his days.

The fact that the media industry worships a man who learned his craft the hard way, and is equally sceptical to people who've spent too much time locked up in the ivory towers of academia, has interesting ramifications for Keen's 'cult of the professional':

When exactly does a person working for mainstream media pass the line from amateur to professional?
A case in point: my first national newspaper story came at 18, after I'd been in Stockholm just when a group of European harm reduction advocates invaded town, and European Cities Against Drugs (EACD) was formed. History was made, my curiosity captivated, and I secured a few key interviews as the story was simply not reported back home. One month later, completely unrelated, I was approached for a role as a columnist for my regional newspaper. And I was hooked.

A few months after that, I covered the Polish presidential election where Kwasniewski won over Lech Walesa: I happened to have the opportunity to go to Warsaw around that time (95) and found a national newspaper who said they'd pay me enough for the story for me to justify the trip.

Oh, and in retrospective, if I'm honest, I think I studied politics and intellectual history partly to feel more confident debating the older and more experienced people I surrounded myself with, but didn't get my BA until five years after I penned my first article as a political commentator. Looking back today, I'm not all that impressed with the first newspaper stories I wrote, but I quite like my work as columnist.

Certainly, by Keen's standards, I was an unqualified amateur? Or is the fact that I had editors, and sometimes got paid, the dividing line that enabled me to call myself a professional in those seven years from my first national byline until I obtained my journalism degree? I use myself as an example here only because it's closest to me, but my story is hardly unique.

Journalists are lifelong amateurs
If we look at etymology, there is a strong a case for arguing that journalists are amateurs all their lives. The word amateur comes from the Latin 'amare', meaning 'to love', and what else than love and public spirit can make a person put up with the lousy pay and ungodly hours most media jobs require?

News journalists are by nature generalists rather than experts, and overall, to paraphrase Friedrich Hayek, 'journalists are second hand peddlers of ideas'. These days I specialise in media, so perhaps I am an expert of sorts, but when I do my job well, both as a media journalist and commentator, my role is more akin to that of a mediator, translator, facilitator, than that of an expert.

It's a matter of definition of course, I've also heard an expert defined as someone who can make complex or abstract ideas sound simple. By that definition, I've been an expert ever since my early days as a columnist.

And I don't mean to brag, in fact I've struggled at times to come to terms with the fact that I'm well versed in abstract ideas and good at applying them to, or translating them into, concrete situations. Being comfortable dabbling with philosophical or technological concepts goes against media's strong anti-intellectual undercurrent, and clashes with some murky notions of intellectual and/or anti-intellectual snobbishness that seem to see ideas and action as mutually exclusive categories.

Proud to be a second-hand dealer in ideas
Now, a lot has changed since Hayek's days. In 1949, he described how "there is little that the ordinary man of today learns about events or ideas except through the medium of this class [of intellectuals, or second-hand dealers in ideas as he called them]; and outside our special fields we are almost all ordinary men."

Today, even the ordinary man can learn most things all by himself by logging onto and searching the world wide web. But the abundance of information available is such that, given how most of us have busy professional lives to keep up with, those second-hand dealers in ideas still have a role to play, and I've come to feel quite proud to be one.

I see the role of journalists of the future more as that of curators, aggregators, translators, guides, which requires a particular skill set, a skill set that in some ways goes beyond that of a traditional journalist (I'll return to that in a separate post), but to quote from Suw Charman's White paper for the Freedom of Expression project:

We need human beings to act as curators of information, to help us understand the wider context of the story, provide analysis, make connections, and explain complex stories using metaphor or analogy... the web is built of hyperlinks, and there is a valuable opportunity for the media to deepen their coverage of the news by linking to the sources used in an article's preparation, plus background reading, watching or listening. Instead of simply republishing content in a flat unlinked form, news organisations should be considering how they can use hyperlinks to create richer, more informed, and more nuanced coverage of every type of news.

Keen's arbiters of taste
Which brings me back to Keen. Because this vision about journalists as guides is not entirely out of sync with Keen's arguments, except for the fact that Keen seems to see journalists and publishers not only as guides or curators, but as vital arbiters of taste, and it's the fact that internet challenges their hegemony that Keen seems to bemoan.

Well I say, good riddance, if those were artificially imposed tastes that didn't reflect reality, we are much better served without them. Except, I don't buy into the argument that internet is destroying our economy and our culture, that it will replace professional journalists with an army of stampeding citizen journalists bent on destroying everything in their way, leaving all mainstream media outlets and publishing houses bankrupt.

Which internet is Keen an expert on?
In fact, I'm at loss as to how a person who calls himself an internet expert, and one would assume knows how to navigate the online landscape of online forums, blogs, You Tube, social networks etc, can come away with Keen's conclusions. I'm tempted to question which internet Keen has surfed, it's certainly not the one I inhabit, but then my time is much too precious to go looking for the bad stuff.

Rather than a garbage tip, I see the internet as a treasure throve, not at least for journalists. I see conversations, tidbits, insights, buzz it previously was impossible for me to listen into, unless I happened to be in the right pub at the right time, made available and searchable through hyperlinks.

I see a world where I can tap into peoples conversations about a company I follow in all the countries it operates, and sample the private notes of an influential academic and the latest Whitehall gossip and banter at the same time; a world where I can track multiple conversations and keep in touch with friends and contacts all over the world, without leaving my office chair. None of this constitute journalism per see, but it's a marvellous starting point for informed reporting.

I see new voices enriching and broadening what academics like to call the 'public discourse' – though surely, it's about time we added an s to the end of that phrase to make it better reflect reality. I see unexplored opportunities for mainstream media (MSM) to work closer with the various communities they serve and hence become more relevant and important to those communities. I see opportunities for MSM to become part of a broader distributed conversation; opportunities to increase traffic and revenues through better distribution, increased credibility and more targeted, or rather relevant, marketing.

There are opportunities aplenty. Yes, change is painful, particularly for those who stand in the middle of it and find their jobs restructured away, but there are also more opportunities than ever to start afresh on your own, do your own thing. Yes, there are challenges, pitfalls, unanswered questions, but was there ever a point in time where we could freeze, would want to freeze, reality and thereby make sure we had all the answers and would live happy ever after?


Hi Kristine,

A good synopsis of the argument against Keen.There has been a lot of debate about this man and his book over the past few months.

You are correct about seeing the internet

" as a treasure throve, not at least for journalists."

Good post.

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