In less than twenty years since its popular ascendancy, the Internet appears poised to supplant the newspaper as the dominant information medium throughout the developed world. This is something that, despite its technological similarities, television never came close to achieving. While it would appear that the chief advantage that the Internet has enjoyed is its ability to aggregate and deliver most all media content, news or otherwise, across time and space, this quick rise to prominence is best attributed to how the Internet has enabled people to pursue a more active engagement with media. No longer are we simply passive, uncritical consumers of media. The Internet, and its assemblage of related technologies, have furnished us with a venue within which most all are able to produce and disseminate their own media content. This is not simply a petty technological progression, but a total epochal shift. In brief, the lowly producers of Internet content have wrested the production of meaning and significance away from the media industries and redistributed a great deal of this capacity to those who are most affected by this function. This is best observed in how an expanding number of us, as politically, socially and culturally engaged citizens, are accessing “user-produced” blogs with the same confidence that was once accorded exclusively to newspapers. This legitimacy has been so solidified that even the industrial media are now looking towards the “blogosphere” to gather information and to determine what matters in the world. However, like most stories of revolution, this one doesn’t end with stability and peaceful coexistence.
At present, the industrial media, specifically the professional craft of journalism, is struggling through an existential crisis. Having suffered the loss of its cultural centrality, journalism has begun experimenting with reinvention in a feeble attempt to stave off greater losses. Like an adult desperate to recapture their youth or to ingratiate themselves with the youth of today, journalism has adorned itself with emergent technologies and practices. Beneath the on-line supplements, interactive features, space for inflammatory reader input and candid blog posts by correspondents, journalism looks as uncomfortable and ridiculous as an adult in youth dress. The tragedy of this endeavor is that the craft of journalism has lost sight of what journalism has achieved and can still aspire to.
Conversely, having enjoyed an infancy of much attention and promise, the blog genre is in the thick of a difficult adolescence. The blog is tantamount to a pre-teen who insists that they have developed the skills and collected the experiences necessary to be treated as an adult without equivocation, even when their behaviour has demonstrated otherwise. The fact that partisan attack, unvetted screeds and conspiracy theories are regarded as able journalism – albeit “citizen” journalism — by the larger blogosphere is evidence that bloggers have not come anywhere close to replacing journalists as the framers of our societies. This is because the present conventions of the blog genre privilege brevity, expediency, sensationalism and self-promotion. While good journalism is about “getting the story,” good blogging is about getting people to visit your blog in the hopes of quickly landing a book deal or regular bookings as a pundit.
As it stands, the potential for a truly mass media, meaning one that is reflective of the innumerable voices and perspectives of the masses, threatens to be subsumed by a million micro-blog posts about what someone happens to be eating at this very instant or a few hundred paranoid or despondent webcam rants. Vanity, fear and narcissism are not sound conventions from which the blog genre can develop. However, rigidly modeling the conventions of this still maturing genre upon those established by journalism and the rest of the “old media” is equally pernicious, as this would undermine what makes blogging unique, exciting and, indeed, revolutionary. Below, we propose one such way to build upon the past without sacrificing future potential — the development of an amorphous set of genre conventions referred to as personal journalism.
Declaration of Principles and Practices
Set Back, Set Up, or What is personal journalism?
Personal journalism is about stepping back to critically examine and put our lives, experiences and relationships into context, as well as stepping up to define their meaning. Using the various media forms adopted and developed by the blog genre, personal journalism combines the free form creativity and labourious love typically of scrapbooking, with the curiosity of the documentary genre. The purpose of personal journalism is to report and make meaning of individual perspectives and experiences in an engaging manner while framing them within their larger social context. Such perspectives and stories need not be limited to those of others, as the genre embraces and encourages those belonging to the journalist him or herself.
The prevailing conventions of the blog genre do not lend themselves, and are in fact counter, to personal journalism. Ephemeral and narcissistic, blogging is an effective vehicle for self-promotion, the competitive exhibition of taste and the chauvinistic assertion of prejudice. Before posting something ask yourself, “does this post contribute to my or anyone else’s understanding or appreciation of the world or the human condition?” If the answer is anything but yes, you are blogging.
Tell interesting stories, interestingly.
Before anything else, personal journalists are compelled to tell good stories. In doing so, they need not feel any commitment to the written word. The flexibility of most social media and blogging applications allows stories to be told using text, photographs, video, audio, graphics or any combination thereof. The personal journalist should adopt whichever form they feel most comfortable with, but should also consider which one tells a particular story best.
Don’t remove yourself from the story, but never put yourself into it.
While it is an admirable goal, personal journalism is incredulous towards the professional maxim of objectivity. Effective reportage and storytelling requires the journalist to be active in understanding and framing the significance of a particular subject or event. In their professional removal from a story, the traditional journalist may overlook or distort some aspect that someone with an intimate knowledge would otherwise report differently. In spite of their wanton subjectivity, the personal journalist must remain disinterested. This is achieved by asking questions, critical observation and reflection, rather than a near total reliance on emotion and recollection. For instance, if you’re profiling a good friend, don’t tell us how much you love them and how wonderful they are. Instead, use what you know about them to better tell their story.
Examine your own life.
Reflect upon, but never relay, your experiences. Don’t just tell us what you did on the weekend. Instead, tell us how it happened, what lead to it, why you did it, what it was like, who else was there, what they thought about it, what you learned and so on. Your reports don’t necessarily need to be profound or educational. They can be funny or entertaining “slices of life,” perhaps even how-to guides. Be as creative, poetic or inquisitive with your reports as you see fit. Just don’t let them devolve into inane blog posts.
Eschew politics, but never become apolitical.
Personal journalism is unlike citizen journalism. Citizen journalism is a fundamentally activist endeavour which seeks to make known particular views and events that are said to have been suppressed by power, hoping to influence some sort of political change. What detracts from citizen journalism is its disingenuous insistence that it is objective, whilst purporting to know the singular truth of a story. Personal journalists must remain committed to the ideal of plurality, and never lose sight of the fact that they are conveying a story, and not the story, within a larger political, social and cultural context. As such, personal journalism need not shy away from political and social matters. Just take a critical step back and tell us a story.
Above all, keep passionate and have fun.