The future, for writers

If you are only a writer, can you make a living? Will you be able to make a living as a writer in the future? How, and for how long?

I’m talking about journalists here, not novelists and poets and scholars. Journalists.

The question can be phrased in several other ways. The reasons to consider it? Professional training, some of which is done in journalism schools. Lifelong learning, for people who already have a job. Job security. And for young’uns, students, all of the above.

Know how to write. Know how to tell a story. Know how to conduct an interview. Know how to research your ass off.

That comes from Rob Curley. I agree completely. If you cannot do the second, third and fourth of those, then the first is pretty much useless.

Along the same lines, you have to understand accuracy. You have to understand how to quote, how to paraphrase, how to edit in a manner that conveys what a person said in the most accurate way possible.

You have to know how to ask a question. You have to know how to come up with the right question to ask.

Some people think being a writer is just mechanics and language. You know how to put words together to make a beautiful sentence, how to put sentences together to make a beautiful paragraph. Leonard Witt knows better than that:

The vast majority of people in the news business are reporters, they collect facts and write them in a coherent fashion. These fact collectors could shoot some photos, put together some audio and video, and have a better story than if they were just transferring notes to story copy. They are on the straight news side of the continuum. As we move across the continuum past the feature writer towards the literary nonfiction writer, we have a different breed of writers with different abilities and skill sets.

Witt is a journalism professor who has held professional journalism jobs at Minnesota Public Radio and more than one newspaper. He’s not just giving lip service to reporters; he understands their value. A longtime advocate of citizen journalism, Witt certainly does not say that every journalist must try to become a great writer.

Being a writer, Witt says, “requires the ability to see little details, nuances.” If you’ve got to spend time “fumbling around with a camera and tape-recorder and … editing all those pieces together,” you won’t have the time necessary to produce “the finely crafted written story.” He’s not wrong — but that bit about seeing the little details and nuances really rang another bell for me, because I’ve spent the past 11 weeks teaching print journalism grad students how to gather and edit audio, shoot and edit photos, and tell a story in Soundslides.

Let me tell you, little details and nuances make all the difference in audio too. And in photos. But in audio and photo, we are talking about different ways of seeing (the reference to John Berger is intentional).

Witt says that in our great American game of baseball (which many Europeans call the most boring game in the world), you wouldn’t expect a great pitcher to be a great catcher too. I don’t know what the soccer (football) equivalent of that would be, but you probably get the idea. A great first baseman has to understand what everyone else on the field is doing. He’s going to lose his chance if he doesn’t see who has the ball and is throwing it to him. He’s going to lose the game for his team if he does not throw the ball fast enough to one of the other basemen, or to the catcher at home plate. (Substitute soccer analogies as needed.)

Journalism is a team sport, as Witt encourages us to imagine.

Being a writer is not.

(Others who have responded to Witt’s thought-provoking post: Paul Conley, Rob Curley.)

4 Comments on “The future, for writers

  1. Nice team-sports analogy but I think it would be improved if Witt included the crowd, otherwise journalists risk becoming (today more than ever) “merely performers that other people watch” rather than professionals who develop some kind of authentic interaction with the communities they claim to serve.

  2. The other key skill a journalist needs to have – particularly if he/she is a freelance as I am – is the ability not just to see those subtle nuances, theose differences but to develop them into an idea and SELL them. Selling is (unfortunately) a more important skill than writing beautiful prose.

  3. If journalists do become “merely performers that other people watch” as Dr Cokley states then obviously they will loose all value. Readers expect from journalists now. With the growing financial pressures on old media, journalists have to become two or three trick ponies.

  4. I think the key is to think of yourself as a reporter, gathering facts, interviewing subjects, asking tough questions, analyzing data, etc. If you think of yourself as a writer, you’ll only focus on the words.

    When you realize you are a reporter and not just a writer, the whole idea of trying to report with video or another form doesn’t seem so daunting. You already know how to report. Now you just need to learn to shoot video.

    How hard can that really be?

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