Maybe Estate 4.1?

Posted 5 May 2009 by

With much hubris, many New Media bloggers see their work replacing the product of traditional media. Some people feel nothing good came come of a blog.

Is the truth in the middle? Is there a synergy with professionals and amateurs working together that gives us a sum that is greater than their individual parts?

Poynter Online has an article by Roy Clark called “Who is the Fifth Estate and What is Its Role in Journalism’s Future?” This article discusses this issue.

Clark is a member of the faculty at the Poynter Institute. Experienced at teaching everyone from school-aged children to Pulitzer Prize-winning authors around the world, this print journalist finds purpose and reason to have people at all levels engaging in journalism.

This is not a case of selling out to the chronicle of shallow facts and personal opinions found in many blogs. That is not what Clark wants for journalism. An editorial on toledoblade.com attributes Clark with feeling that the best journalists “see their primary duty as disclosing information that serves the public interest, even when their own editors may not agree” (“The governor listens,” toledoblade.com, published October 21, 2007, retrieved on May 5, 2009).

Instead, Clark sees those participating in New and Traditional Media in the same relationship as informed adults and doctors have with practicing medicine. Lay people can do some things, and do them well, but should not do everything in medicine. Clark points out that, while he has saved two lives using the Heimlich maneuver, you do not want him to perform brain surgery. Also, lay people arrive at the doctor’s office with the ability to discuss important medical matters, removing the doctor from a god-like power over lives.

He attributes this ability of lay people to do some things well in medicine to specific training (Heimlich maneuver) and to availability of information.

As a person who has saved two lives using the Heimlich maneuver, one life using CPR, and had to discuss issues around having an adult soft tissue sarcoma and resulting complications, Clark is right. It didn’t take a doctor to perform initial treatment the evening that I was the only person in a health club (including employees) that knew CPR when someone collapsed. Being able to discuss treatment options still means that I am not a victim of cancer, but a survivor.

This is not a new opinion, though. As a technical communicator, I have seen the down-side of excluding professionals in favor of non-professionals. There is an opinion held by many in business that the expense of proper documentation in many cases is not worth the cost using professionals from other fields to do the documentation.

Actually, a large part of my career so far has be spent cleaning up the messes created by non-professionals. Companies decide that the best solution is to pay me to learn the information that is not currently available, organize and present the information, and then walk out the front door when I am done. Did anyone think that maybe the best thing they could do would be to have me work on other communications-related work (marketing communications, upgrade of content management systems, correcting errors identified in current documentation, helping the support team) between projects?

Having a technical communicator help prepare Word templates for use on Microsoft SharePoint does not address the quality of the information kept in documents created from those templates. It does not address organizing the information on SharePoint for others to find and use. It does not address finding ways to reuse current information for new purposes.

Is this defining a limitation on what Clark proposes? Is it an acknowledgment that technical writing is different from other writing? Probably, it is a bit of both.

This gets to a point that should be made. New Media is not the Fifth Estate, as suggested by Clark. It is still doing the work of the Fourth Estate, either professionally or as an amateur, when doing something other than describing what you are doing at the moment.

The news media for years has asked for news tips from the public. Maybe New Media is a way of formalizing this a bit more? And, letting those in New Media doing more of the chronicle of events, leaving the work of a journalist to those with traditional training and ethics?

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