Are bloggers journalists? A critical look at the idea of ‘professionalism’



September 24th, 2007

If you visit the website of the Singapore Press Club, you’ll find the question, “Are bloggers journalists?”, posted as a discussion topic. The first response is from the president of the press club, a mainstream newspaper executive with decades of experience, and it’s an unequivocal “no”. Indeed, no blogger, no matter how seriously she applies herself to her craft, would qualify for regular membership of the press club. On the other hand, the driver or secretary of the press club president would be eligible for regular membership, simply by virtue of being an employee of a large news organisation.

In such ways, prevailing definitions of what a journalist is privilege large commercial organisations, even at the expense of common sense. I prefer more inclusive, minimalist definitions. Let me give it a shot. We could perhaps say that a journalist is one who applies his or her powers of observation, investigation and enterprise to provide the public with intelligence and commentary about current affairs. Such a definition would say something about the content of journalism, how it’s done and whom it’s for. So, it’s not an empty definition, but not too restrictive either.

Narrow definitions just don’t stand up to historical scrutiny. That hasn’t stopped them being bandied about. Ironically, the mainstream press that is the main beneficiary of press freedom has rarely recognized the fact that the idea of press freedom was born out of a ferment that the mainstream press in its current form did not contribute to, since it did not yet exist. Objectivity, balance or journalism as a full-time profession came later. Press freedom as an ideal emerged in Europe and the United States to protect the “bloggers” of the time: the partisans, the ideologues, the lone pamphleteers, who had no professional training, no codes of ethics and so on. Yet, today’s professional journalists claim press freedom and in the same breath reject the very breed of communicators that gave it birth.

Indeed, narrow definitions of journalism can play into the hands of authoritarian states. The conventional wisdom is that Western-style professional journalism, shaped by the notion of professional disinterest, contributes to the advancement of freedom and democracy. The experience of Singapore suggests otherwise. In Singapore, the idea of professional disinterest has been actively promoted by the state as part of a strategy of neutering the press and keeping it in a subordinate position. The Singapore case is interesting as perhaps the pre-eminent example of successful authoritarian control of the press, in that the state has managed to tame the press using declining levels of overt repression.

The Singapore model rejects the modern liberal democratic ideal of the press as the Fourth Estate, but, interestingly, embraces the way modern journalism is organised. It endorses the Western business model of the press over more troublesome traditional genres from the past. Fifty to a hundred years ago, the Singapore media landscape included a vibrant, partisan, ideologically-driven, morally-engaged press. In the Chinese-language segment of the Singapore media, for example, newspapers from the late 19th century and through the first half of the 20th century were typically ideological vehicles for their proprietors, many of whom were already wealthy and interested in publishing mainly for influence and prestige, not profit.

We find the same phenomenon in Singapore’s Malay-language journalism. Journalism in the Malay world, which includes Singapore’s neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia, sees little distinction between the journalist, the writer, the poet, the activist and the public intellectual. There are still vestiges of this in Indonesia’s vibrant democracy, where luminaries in newspaper publishing such as Goenawan Mohammed are simultaneously literary figures and intellectuals. The other important tributary into Singapore journalism is from India: Bengali journalism, for example – just like its Malay variant – was traditionally seen a politically engaged intellectual pursuit, not as a profession that tries its best to stay disinterested. Mahatma Gandhi was, in addition to being the iconic political activist of the 20th century, a newspaper publisher in both South Africa and India.

If you were to go back in time and tell these Asian writers that they would have to be disinterested and objective and reject advocacy or partisanship if they wanted to be considered “journalists”, they would probably reply, you can keep the label, thank you very much. And, if indeed this pantheon of Asian newspaper persons were to be excised from the institutional memories of modern journalism, we would be poorer for it. We would be denying ourselves a rich source of inspiration, and what social movement scholars call a repertoire of contention, in journalism’s supposed mission to speak truth to power.

The intent here is not to glorify every manifestation of that earlier form of Asian journalism; I only want to establish it as a historical fact. It was probably the case that some of that journalism was unhealthy for the nation-building projects that Singapore and other post-colonial states were forced to engage in suddenly from the middle of the last century. This was partly why Lee Kuan Yew, who led Singapore into independence, took strong action against them. Many of these non-English-language newspapers had a vision of Singapore that was not particularly “Singaporean”. They were diaspora media fixated on the struggles of their ancestral homelands, or championing the narrow communal interests of immigrant communities in ways that sometimes strayed into chauvinism.

Regardless of whether Lee’s ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) Government was justified in cracking down on the media, what is most interesting for the present discussion is what the PAP chose to replace it with. Instead of opting for the Chinese communist model of a nationalized press and turning the press into the official propaganda mouthpiece of the ruling party, the PAP embraced the Western business model of a profit-driven press and the Western professional model of disinterest – at least in a twisted form.

The PAP’s main instrument was the Newspaper and Printing Presses Act of 1974 (NPPA). The NPPA required newspapers to be run by publicly listed companies with highly spread-out ownership. It thus outlawed newspaper ownership by press barons or families – who, being human, might be tempted to exploit the ideological potential of the press even at the expense of turning in a profit. In the United States, there is growing professional and scholarly interest in the question of whether family-owned newspapers are more passionate about defending democracy than publicly listed corporations. Lee Kuan Yew appears to have understood this three decades earlier. He counter-intuitively gave more power to the stock market. Requiring newspapers to be owned by thousands of anonymous shareholders reduces the owners to their lowest common denominator – their desire for higher financial returns – and removes political impulses from the equation. Thus, the idiosyncratic publishers who populated Singapore’s news media landscape in its more “Asian” era were replaced by the clinically rational corporations of today, modeled on Western corporate media.

Within newsrooms, there has been a similar long-term shift towards delegitimizing values-driven journalism. Worldwide, this has been framed by the mainstream as indicative of professional development. I have a different interpretation, drawn from my own professional experience. For 10 years, I worked as a journalist and editor at The Straits Times, Singapore’s largest and most profitable newspaper. Right now, in addition to being an academic, I serve as the editor and publisher of What’s Up, a monthly current affairs newspaper for children. It has a not insignificant circulation of more than 25,000, but remains a tiny family-owned business with exactly two full-time employees.

Despite being basically the same person as I was 10 years ago, I’ve found that I practise journalism quite differently in What’s Up compared with my days at The Straits Times. At What’s Up, we explicitly stand for “values-driven journalism”. Among the values we openly espouse on our website are multiculturalism, environmental stewardship and social responsibility through democratic participation. We encourage our small pool of writers to be led by their passions and their values in their work. At The Straits Times, in contrast – like most big newspapers – journalists are expected to leave their biases at home when they come to work.

I suspect that the difference in approach is mainly due to organisational imperatives – and very little to do with normative principles. In a tiny set-up like What’s Up, it is quite feasible for me as the editor to allow values and causes into the editorial process without losing control of operation. If I were to run The Straits Times like that, there would be chaos. A news organization with scores or hundreds of reporters and editors, or more than a thousand like the BBC, cannot possibly let them all be led by their values. Any manager would be nervous – and rightly so – by the prospect of workers who felt that their personal values had a legitimate place at the core of their work. This is not because the gatekeepers lack personal values themselves, but because they know that dealing with such workers would be a management nightmare.

That’s not to say that reporters can write anything they feel like in What’s Up, but that, being a small monthly, we have plenty of time to negotiate our way through each disagreement, even if the editor’s view ultimately prevails. In contrast, large news organizations with a daily output require a certain standardization of inputs to ensure an efficient flow of copy. Some aspects of professionalism may be little more than this: a bureaucratic necessity for efficient operation of large-scale commercial news enterprises.

I am not suggesting that we abandon this model. I only suggest that we avoid uncritically invoking professional standards as the dividing line that separates journalists from non-journalists. Journalism in Singapore and elsewhere in the world needs to have both – professionalism constrained by disinterest and industry-wide codes, as well as idiosyncratic, morally engaged amateurism. Historically and normatively, both deserve a place at the table that we call journalism. Many self-righteous though well-meaning mainstream professionals want to protect the sanctity of journalism against insurgents trying to align their work with their own particular agendas. What the professionals may be unwittingly protecting, however, are rather prosaic industrial and commercial imperatives; in particular, the imperative to alienate the journalist and publisher from their own work.

– This is the edited text of a speech delivered at the AMIC Annual Conference and World Journalism Education Congress in Singapore in June 2007.

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