The question occurred to me over lunch in the press lounge at the Electronic Entertainment Expo. As hundreds of journalists dressed in everything from tie-dyed T-shirts to suits fed from the buffet trough, I wondered: Who is the press?
The question is not a particularly new one. A decade ago (when I was a radio news reporter) there was debate over whether publications like the National Enquirer should be accorded the privileges of “real” journalists. There was even discussion about whether radio and TV broadcasters were legitimate news reporters or simply walking voices and hairstyles that knew how to hold a microphone.
Increasingly, though, the question is not limited to internecine sniping. At E3 a couple of years back, there were more than 2,000 people (out of 41,000 total attendees) registered as media, all requiring phones, computers, attention, and food. The press has become a crush.
At one time, criteria for identifying news media were simple: Present a business card, by-lined article, or “letter of assignment” from your editor on the news outlet’s letterhead. You were sanctioned and could wear the coveted “Press” card in your hat, even if you didn’t have a head to put it on.
These days, sign up for a personal web site, and you’re a publisher. Add streaming media, and you’re a radio or TV station. This proliferation even inspired a term used by an E3 publicist: “garage media.”
Nearly a decade ago, in an essay titled “When Dinosaurs Ruled the Airwaves”, I speculated that the combination of cheap satellite time, inexpensive video cameras, early cellular telephones, and powerful personal computers online would threaten the existing top-down media structure. It’s now happening, but with messy consequences.
Yet the answer to the question “Who is the press?” may simply be “Whom do you believe?”
A news outlet isn’t much of one if it doesn’t have a constituency it’s not the transmission medium, but how much of an audience an outlet can attract and retain that makes it news media. A little old lady who devotedly writes with a quill pen on parchment only to read the finished work to her cat is hardly a novelist. Neither is someone a news outlet who only appeals to the reflection in the display screen.
New media do make it easier for those who find it fashionable to be a reporter to produce professional-looking threads. However, it’s one thing to put on the outfit, and another to wear it properly.