Now, anyone can be a hack

Hello, citizens. Have you brought your notebooks? Good. I’ve called you here today, because I want to talk about something that’s been troubling me ever since I first saw that picture on the front pages a few months back.

You know, the fuzzy, grainy, purple-at-the-fringes one that some guy snapped with his cellphone while walking down the tracks of the London Underground on that horrible day when the buses blew up. The picture appeared on the internet within minutes, whereupon it was copied, pasted, and seized by the print media as spectacular proof of their own impending demise.

Why should a newspaper spend good money dispatching seasoned professionals to the scene of a breaking news story, wondered the newspapers, when any ordinary citizen with a cellphone and a working pair of opposable thumbs can beat them to the scoop?

The age of the “citizen journalist” has arrived, and in principle, I have no problem with that. After all, if a journalist can be a citizen - and I think there is a passage in the Constitution that grudgingly grants us that right - then why can’t a citizen be a journalist? I’ll tell you. Because I want to get my news, commentary, and opinion from a “citizen journalist”, as much as I want to get my triple coronary bypass from a “citizen cardiologist”.

There are certain stations in life that demand more from their self-proclaimed occupiers than the fact that they just happened to be on the spot when things started blowing up.

Journalism, much like cardiology, is a profession that calls for quick thinking, scalpel-sharp instincts, nimble typing fingers, and the support of a competent anaestheologist. But suddenly, ordinary citizens are being given a platform and incentive to become journalists overnight, short-circuiting the years of hands-on training it takes to undo the years spent studying for a B. Journ at Rhodes. Most shocking of all, it appears that the platform and incentive are being provided by the newspaper companies themselves!

On www.reporter.co.za, hosted by the same people who bring you the Sunday Times, Business Day, and the Financial Mail, any humble citizen who has ever dreamed of being a journalist - be they plumber, lawyer, accountant, or newspaper sub-editor - can fill in an application to become a “citizen journalist”. That is not merely the process for becoming a journalist; it is the sole qualification.

And then, if your story or picture or opinion piece makes it through the rigours of the approval process (that is to say, you remember to send it in) you won’t only get published, you’ll get paid. A whole 30 bucks! Why, that’s almost as much as a real journalist can make in a month.

Look, I like the idea that the Person in the Street now has an equal opportunity to let us know what they saw or heard or what they think about what is going on in their community. Then again, if I want to read flimsy, parochial reports masquerading as news stories, I don’t have to read citizen journalists; I can just read The Citizen.

In any case, the truth is that there is nothing new about citizen journalists. In previous centuries, we used to refer to them as “eyewitnesses”. We’d interview them, spell their names wrong, call them “attractive” or “middle-aged” if they were women, and that would be that.

But nowadays, eyewitnesses don’t just want to talk. They want to testify. They want to report. Even worse, they want to “blog”, which sounds like the kind of thing you do just before you call the plumber around to unblog your drain.

But thank you for listening, citizens. Don’t let me stand in your way. Go now, and be the journalists you’ve always dreamed you could be. Be sceptical yet compassionate, be cynical yet sensitive, be truthful yet, um, truthful.

You may not have the qualifications, you may not have the experience, you may not have the instincts. But in one way, at least, you have shown your clear understanding of what it takes to be a real journalist. You brought along your spiral-bound notebooks, but somehow, you forgot to bring your pens.

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