The post-reporter era

One of the foundation stones of journalism is the process of reporting. That there is a messenger working the gap between an event and a story provides for news to exist and exist with myriad nuances attached to it. There are ethical and moral issues, technical considerations, writing styles, and presentation formats to perfect. The entire news-publishing industry is centered on the activities of reporters and streamlining them.

What the reporter requires the most is… well, a few things. The first is a domain of events, from which he picks issues to talk about. The second is a domain of stories, into which he publishes his reports. The third is a platform using which he may incentivize this process for himself, and acquire the tools with which he may publish his stories efficiently and effectively. The last entity is more commonly understood in the form of a publishing house.

The reason I’ve broken the working of a reporter into these categories is to understand what makes a reporter at all. Today, a reporter is most commonly understood in terms of an individual who is employed with a publishing house and publishes stories for them. Ideally, however, everyone is a reporter: simply the creation of knowledge by people based on experiences around them should be qualification enough. This calls into question the role of a publishing house: is it a platform working with which reporters may function efficiently, or is it an employer of reporters?

If it’s an employer of reporters, then any publishing house wouldn’t have to worry about where the course of journalism is going to take the organization itself. Reporters will have to change the way they work – how they spot issues, evolving writing styles to suit their audiences, so forth – but the publishing house will retain ownership of the reporters themselves. As long as it’s not a platform which individuals use to function as reporters, things are going to be fine.

Now, let’s move to the post-reporter era, where everyone is a reporter (of course, that’s an idealized image, but even so). In this world, a reporter is not someone who works for a publishing house – that aspect of the word’s meaning is left behind in the age of the publishing house. In this world, a reporter is someone who works simply as a messenger between the domains of events and stories, where the role of the publishing house as the owner of reportage is absent.

The nature of such a world throws light on the valuation of information. When multiple reporters cover different events and return to HQ to file their stories, the house decides which stories make the cut and which don’t on the basis of a set of parameters. In other words, the house creates and assigns a particular value to each story, and then compares the values of different stories to determine their destiny.

In the post-reporter era, which is likely to be occupied by channels of individual presentation – ranging from word-of-mouth to full-scale websites – houses that thrive today on the valuation of information and the importance the houses’ readers place on it  will steadily fade out. What exists will be an all-encompassing form of what is known as citizen journalism (CJ) today. Houses take to CJ because of the mutually beneficial relationship available therein: the CJ gets the coverage and the advantage of the issue pursued no longer being under wraps; the reporter gets a story that has both civic/criminal and human-interest angles to it.

However, when the CJ voids the relationship by refusing the intervention of a publishing/broadcasting house, and chooses to take his story straight to the people through a channel he finds effective enough, the house-level valuation of stories is replaced by a democratic institution that may or may not be guided by a paternalistic attitude.

Therefore, if a particular house has to survive into the post-reporter era, it must discard issue-valuation as an engine and instead rely on some other entity, such as one represented by a parameter whose efficiency is a maximizable quantity. This can be conceived as a fourth domain which, upon maximization, becomes the superset of which the three domains are subsets.

A counter-productive entity in this situation is that of property, which is accrued in great quantities by a high-achieving house in the present but which delays the onset of change in the future. Even when the house starts to experience slightly rougher weather, its first move will be to pump in more money, thereby offsetting change by some time. Only when the amount of property invested in delaying change is considerable will the house start to consider other alternatives, by which time other competing organizations will have moved into the future.

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Science writer and editor in Bangalore, India.

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