16th April 2010: A Journalist In 30 Minutes

Tonight at a party in Melbourne’s Nicholas Building, collaborator Ben Eltham reflects to an academic on the problems he has had with past journalist graduates. “Some of them were useless,” he quipped. “I can make you a journalist in 30 minutes. Here’s a chair. Here’s a phone. Here’s a story lead. Call someone. Now.”

The academic replied: “Perhaps you hired the wrong graduates?”

Despite a purported industry crisis, journalism is seen by some universities as a ‘hot’ area for potential students who are interested in Web 2.0, citizen journalism, and other topics. It provides a meta-framework to bring a range of academic backgrounds and skills into a cohesive department. If there’s a demonstrable market and student demand, it’s also easier to get courses through Academic Board approval and course quality assurance processes.

Eltham’s quip points to another reality: journalism is a craft or practice that requires a combination of sense-making, situational awareness and action. At some point, you have to go out and Do journalism, like a writer staring at a blank page, or a stockmarket trader placing a trade. For Eltham and myself, this approach perhaps comes from our mutual experiences in the student press and writing/editing for online publications. In 1994 student elections I suggested that student media and journalism departments follow the model at many US universities, where journalism graduates do an internship with the paper.

In contrast, at some of the new university journalism courses are attuned more to a Web 2.0 paradigm. To me, you can learn the basics of Del.icio.us, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress,
wikis, or whichever platform you choose, also in about 30 minutes. Yes, it’s a powerful amplifier or ecosystem, with its own dynamics. Yet it’s not a replacement for core skills, if you have ambitions to research, write, edit and publish original material, instead of reposting or relinking to existing material, via social network sites.

Perhaps that’s why Eltham and I are also fans of long-form journalism that requires these skills. And, as Barry Saunders and I found, perhaps also why the very best investigative journalists are emerging from other arenas that share this focus on craft and tacit skills — investment banking, intelligence analysis, police detective work — and not necessarily university journalism courses.

You can forward or re-post a message in 30 seconds. You can learn the basics of journalism in 30 minutes. A social media platform can amplify this, and build in recursive audience feedback and reflection cycles. It can take a lifetime however to master and deepen your appreciation of journalism’s craft, sense-making and tacit knowledge.

We Are All Traders Now?

Mark Pesce pointed me to Bernard Lunn’s article which contends netizens now live in a real-time Web. Lunn suggests that journalists and traders are two models for information filtering in this environment, and that potential applications include real-time markets for digital goods, supply chain management and location-based service delivery.

Lunn’s analogy to journalists and traders has interested me for over a decade. In the mid-1990s I read the Australian theorist McKenzie Wark muse about CNN and how coverage of real-time events can reflexively affect the journalists who cover them. As the one-time editor for an Internet news site I wrote an undergraduate essay to reflect on its editorial process for decisions. I then looked at the case studies on analytic misperception during crisis diplomacy, intelligence, and policymaker decisions under uncertainty. For the past year, I’ve read and re-read work in behavioural finance, information markets and the sociology of traders: how the financial media outlets create noise which serious traders do not pay attention to (here and here), what traders actually do (here, here, and perhaps here on the novice-to-journeyman transition), and the information strategies of hedge fund mavens such as George Soros, Victor Niederhoffer, David Einhorn, Paul Tudor Jones II and Barton Biggs. This body of research is not so much about financial trading systems, as it is about the individual routines and strategies which journalists and traders have developed to cope with a real-time world. (Of course, technology can trump judgment, such as Wall Street’s current debate about high-frequency trade systems which leaves many traders’ expertise and strategies redundant.)

Lunn raises an interesting analogy: How are journalists and financial traders the potential models for living in a real-time world? He raises some useful knowledge gaps: “. . . we also need to master the ability to deal with a lot of real-time
information in a mode of relaxed concentration. In other words, we need
to study how great traders work.” The sources cited above indicate how some ‘great traders work’, at least in terms of what they explicitly espouse as their routines. To this body of work, we can add research on human factors and decision environments such as critical infrastructure, disaster and emergency management, and high-stress jobs such as air traffic control.

Making the wrong decisions in a crisis or real-time environment can cost lives.

It would be helpful if Lunn and others who use this analogy are informed about what good journalists and financial traders actually do. As it stands Lunn mixes his analogy with inferences and marketing copy that really do not convey the expertise he is trying to model. For instance, the traders above do not generally rely on Bloomberg or Reuters, which as information sources are more relevant to event-based arbitrage or technical analysts. (They might subscribe to Barron’s or the Wall Street Journal, as although the information in these outlets is public knowledge, there is still an attention-decision premia compared to other outlets.) Some traders don’t ‘turn off’ when they leave the trading room (now actually an electronic communication network), which leaves their spouses and families to question why anyone would want to live in a 24-7 real-time world. Investigative journalists do not generally write their scoops on Twitter. ‘Traditional’ journalists invest significant human capital in sources and confidential relationships which also do not show up on Facebook or Twitter. These are ‘tacit’ knowledge and routines which a Web 2.0 platform or another technology solution will not be the silver bullet for, anytime soon.

You might feel that I’m missing Lunn’s point, and that’s fine. In a way, I’m using his article to raise some more general concerns about sell-side analysts who have a  ‘long’ position on Web 2.0. But if you want to truly understand and model expertise such as that of journalists and financial traders, then a few strategies may prove helpful. Step out of the headspace of advocacy and predetermined solutions — particularly if your analogy relies on a knowledge domain or field of expertise which is not your own. Be more like an anthropologist than a Web 2.0 evangelist or consultant: Understand (verstehen) and have empathy for the people and their expertise on its own terms, not what you may want to portray it as. Otherwise, you may miss the routines and practices which you are trying to model. And, rather than commentary informed by experiential insight, you may end up promoting some myths and hype cycles of your own.