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Podcast: Who is a journalist in the digital era?

The digital disruption, rise of online creators and citizen journalists are seemingly converging with professional journalism. Henry Man investigates who a journalist is in today’s digital era and whether a university degree is needed anymore.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This podcast was produced as part of a major capestone story peice for the Journalism Project (JOUR3401) course at The University of Queensland (UQ). This capstone assignment integrates the intersection of my passions – technology, transportation, automotive, and communications industries – and is the last submission during my program.

Audio Transcript

[NAT SOC – people exiting bus and card machine beeping]

HENRY MAN: It’s my last day at uni.

A lot has happened in the past four years studying communications and journalism. And I question what will come next.

But today, anyone can create a website, produce audio-visual content and tell meaningful stories. Look at the tech and automotive industry specifically and an increasing number of online creators are doing the work of a traditional professional journalist.

So, what was the point of the past few years to get my degree? Are influencers journalists? Who is a journalist in the digital era?

[fade in music – Sharp Edges by]

This is Journalism Tomorrow.

[fade out music]

Tom Gan is an online creator of YouTube channel Ludicrous Feed, which focuses on electric vehicle and renewable energy content.

Tom, you’ve produced videos ranging from educational to reviews, covered some news, interviewed people and even attended media launches. So, are you an automotive journalist?

TOM GAN: [Laughs] That’s very flattering of you, but no I’m not a qualified journalist by any means. I’m just myself.

I have never once thought of myself as a journalist. I have great respect for what your industry does, Henry. It’s not something I aspire to. I see myself more as a creator content, rather than a journalist to give audiences a different perspective. And look, not everybody can meet people to interview or attend product launches, so I guess with my camera I just want to get in there and just show people what happens at these launches and try to give a more, I guess, casual approach to this industry, particularly because EVs are disruptive so we’re seeing history in action. That’s my point of difference, I guess.

HENRY MAN: Ludicrous Feed has grown so much over the years to nearly 20,000 subscribers, more than four million views in total and almost 1000 videos today. Being in the same industry, it does somewhat cross with content from automotive media. What inspired you to start producing and publishing content on your channel?

[NAT SOC – birds chirping]

TOM GAN: So, I started my channel in January 2018. I still remember that day. It was a beautiful warm summers day in Sydney. At this point that I had owned my Tesla Model S for just a bit over a year, but obviously getting a lot of comments and questions about the car because at the time there weren’t many EVs on the road.

So, I woke up that day thinking ‘you know what I am going to start putting my thoughts on camera and then publishing them on YouTube. And if anybody wants to watch it, then great. And if anybody asks me any more questions, I’m just going to refer them to my videos’.

I did medicine in uni. I am a doctor, so that’s my day job. What started off as a hobby has now become almost a full-blown passion. But I think the two can actually go hand-in-hand quite well.

HENRY MAN: According to a study by Mumbrella in 2017, around three-quarters of journalism graduates don’t land a journalism job in the industry, despite enrolments in university degrees remaining steady.

Sarah Richards is a Cadet Journalist at the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and graduated with a communications and journalism degree in 2021.

[NAT SOC – office talking and phones chiming]

SARAH RICHARDS: Journalism’s a really, really hard industry to pursue to get into. It’s really worth it, though. You do need to have a lot of drive.

I think the next generation don’t consume their news by watching and seeing a TV and turning it on every night at 7pm. Statistically that’s just fact. The next generation that’s coming in views news differently. News has a strong purpose still in what it does – tell stories, keep things accountable. So, it still has a purpose in society, but it looks very different. The ABC, like other media outlets, are exploring ways that we can tell stories differently, which is really exciting. You just have to embrace it.

HENRY MAN: Sarah, why did you pursue journalism through university?

SARAH RICHARDS: University for me seemed like the easiest pathway of getting a job into that field, so that’s why I approached it that way.

To get where I am now, I think it was my work experience and my internships that I did leading up to it helped me get my job rather than my university degree, so you have to make yourself standout. It was my own drive. I got my very, very first newspaper internship when I was 16.

I’m not sure if it was everything entirely that I did at uni helped me in my career though, but I feel like qualifications wise it was necessary.

HENRY MAN: Defining who a journalist is in our digital era, where anyone can make a website and publish content, has always been contested.

In 2010, former United States soldier Chelsea Manning leaked nearly 750,000 classified and sensitive military and diplomatic documents on the website Wikileaks. Its founder, Julian Assange, has faced criminal extradition to the US and separate arrest warrants for sexual assault allegations in Sweden for the past 12 years.

Assange’s legal team has always argued that he should be protected as a ‘journalist’ who acted in the public interest by publishing whistleblower information online, despite him not holding a journalism degree nor having previous journalism work experience. So, is Assange a journalist?

Professor Peter Greste is a press freedom advocate, academic and Professor of Journalism at the Macquarie University.

[NAT SOC – elevator chime]

PETER GRESTE: No, I don’t think he is. And it’s not because he didn’t hold the degree, or he had no previous experience.

I think we need to make the distinction between a publisher, which Wikileaks certainly was, and a journalist. A publisher simply produces or puts information out, publishes information. There’s no particular code conduct or standard or requirements for publishing information. Journalism requires you to gather, organise and present information in a very particular way. And I don’t think Wikileaks met those standards.

I’m not suggesting therefore that I think Julian Assange should go to prison. Let me be clear about that. I think he’s suffered enormously, I think a lot of the work that he did was very good and very important. I also think that the way in which the United States government is going after Julian Assange does set a very dangerous precedent for journalists everywhere, because the way that they’re doing it could be applied to other legitimate journalists, and I think that is very, very problematic. So, in that regard I’m very much opposed to what’s happening to Julian. But on the fundamental question that you asked, I don’t think we can describe him as a journalist.

HENRY MAN: So, Peter who is a journalist in the digital era? What defines a journalist?

PETER GRESTE: I think it’s a fool’s errand to ask what defines a journalist. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about this and come to the conclusion that that question is really unresolvable in a way that is satisfying for everybody. Instead, I think it makes much more sense to define journalism as a process. Anybody can produce journalism. What matters is the way in which you produce it, the standards that you apply, the processes and systems that you apply. And I think that’s much easier to define.

Someone who is producing journalism is someone who is gathering information according to a generally accepted code of conduct and who in some way is being held accountable to that code of conduct. And I think that’s the key – that you have to be producing work that is accountable and to a set of standards or code of conduct, so that if somebody thinks you’re not living up to your promises or your commitments as a journalist, if you’re not producing work that is to standard, then there is a way of complaining and seeking redress.

Journalism is not like medicine or engineering where you have to have a basic level of knowledge before you can even begin to work. Remember, journalism used to be treated very much as a trade. We didn’t have apprenticeships, but we had cadetships and they were very similar; you didn’t have to have a degree to do that. I do think a degree is incredibly helpful. I think the only two things that you need to be a journalist is to be to be literate to be curious. That’s it. Everything else is window addressing. But that doesn’t mean that journalism doesn’t have some useful skills or important skills that I think are very, very helpful if you want to be producing quality work. I think a degree teaches you how to think, a degree teachers how analyse, a degree teaches how you communicate. So, it’s incredibly valuable but I don’t think it is absolutely essential.

HENRY MAN: Well, I’m questioning whether I wasted the past four years at uni.

PETER GRESTE: [Laughs] I don’t think you need to question. I’m a professor of journalism at a tertiary institution. I believe in in training journalists. I believe in having a journalism degree. I wouldn’t be doing it if I didn’t think it was important or valuable. I just don’t think it is essential.

But I do think the degree will help you move that much further, that much faster and be much more effective if you’ve got that under your belt.

[NAT SOC – train doors closing and departing]

HENRY MAN: As I leave university, I’m keeping an open mind.

TOM GAN: The overarching theme is probably the Internet has been the great disruptor. Technology has been the great disruptor, not just the journalism industry, not just the automotive industry, health care, photography. Everyone has the tools now to do what has been out of reach for many years because of technology. Everyone’s got an access to a smartphone, everyone can buy a very affordable microphone and they can certainly interview someone or go and be a quote-on-quote journalist and post it on YouTube or Twitter or whatever social media platform.

Having done this for almost five years, advice to someone starting out – whether it be journalism or just being a content creator – is just to be yourself. If you’re not yourself, then after a while you’ll get very tired, number one, and number two you’ll find your audience will find out very quickly that you’re just pretending to be someone else. And I just do what I do and what audiences like me doing, and hopefully they’ll continue to enjoy what I do over the next few years and beyond.

[fade in music – Sharp Edges by]

HENRY MAN: Studying communications and journalism for the past four years has allowed me to take on internships that wouldn’t be possible without.

Although the line between online creators and journalists are blurring and job opportunities aren’t as prosperous for graduates, there is still a need for good, authentic, engaging journalism as a process that acts in the public interest to tell stories in new ways and mediums today.

And while a journalism degree isn’t as essential, for me it has been integral to be challenged, grow professionally, and accelerate into the industry. Journalism in the digital era is an evolving, contested and challenging industry – and that’s something I’m passionate about.

[fade out music]