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The journalist as a middleman
By Nick R. Martin | December 26, 2007

Where do journalists fit in the information economy? Formerly, we were powerful gatekeepers to vast amounts of information. We decided what was important to readers and viewers. We put it in a way that everyone of a certain intellect could understand. And from time to time, we would ferret out new information though strong investigative work. Often, though, we were the aggregators of information, the middlemen.

On today's front page, the New York Times showed another kind of middleman. He was a professional letter writer from India named G. P. Sawant, who set up shop years ago inside the local post office and wrote letters for the illiterate. Customers would dictate what they wanted him to write, and Sawant would often write it in simpler, more concise ways.

"Now the professional letter writer is confronting the fate of middlemen everywhere: to be cut out," writes Anand Giridharadas in the Times. "In India, the world’s fastest-growing market for cellphones, calling the village or sending a text message has all but supplanted the practice of dictating intimacies to someone else."

Sound familiar? To many traditional journalists, it should. In today's global media economy, middlemen no longer have a place. Inefficiencies are being cut out. It's why the idea of "Bulletins and Brains," advocated last month by the Associated Press' Tom Curley, strikes me so well. "The bulletins are the first 150 words, getting the news out fast, in conversational radio fashion. The brains are the people who can add real value whether through perspective, deeper reporting or great writing. In short, we need talent, a lot of it and some of it very different," Curley said at a speech in New York. What he' saying is that every story should have a purpose beyond just providing the news.

This goes in hand with a job listing I saw today for a planned website called MainStreet.com. It will be a sister site to TheStreet.com, one of the many homes of financial pundit Jim Cramer. The job listing says the website will feature news "with a twist." It continues: "MainStreet.com will cover breaking news, including celebrity and entertainment news, as a means to get into personal finance." If gives the example of Jamie Lynn Spears, the teenage sister of Britney Spears who recently disclosed she is pregnant. How could you mix that celebrity dish with the world of finance? The job listing says the story would center around "preparing yourself financially to have and raise a child" when facing "an unplanned bun in the oven." In other words, two distant parts of the galaxy will meld to create a highly unusual but specialized news organization.

Whether MainStreet.com creates a black hole or supernova, we'll see. But it shows that journalists who are content to be professional letter writers may find themselves in the same place Sawant and his colleagues find themselves today: "at the base of a gnarled tree, under a tarpaulin mat that shields them from the ceaselessly defecating pigeons that flutter among the branches."


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