Reinventing the definition of "journalist"

Last week I had somewhat of an identity crisis. As I briefly contemplated redesigning my website, I threw together a quick mockup in Photoshop. The nameplate across the top read: Lauren Michell Rabaino: designer/journalist.

Then I paused. Wait-- am I still a journalist? Was I ever really a journalist? Hell, what is a journalist?

And, like any other intellectually conflicted moment in my life, I tweeted.

I received a lot of responses from the twitterverse, but the general consensus is that yes, I am indeed still a journalist. The responses from twitter can be categorized into two types:

1. The people who share the same sense of distance from the act of reporting, but still call themselves journalists.

"I still call myself a journalist and I don't even work in the field anymore." - P. Kim Bui

"I haven't written in a year, but I still consider myself both a designer and journalist." - Leo Post

"Definitely still a journalist. we have to broaden the definition. I havent reported in a while." - Gabriel Sama

2. The people who tried to rationalize why I could still be considered a "journalist."

" You still care more about journalism than half the people I know in the field. I think the title fits." -Juana Summers

"If you apply journalistic practice to our work, you're a journalist. Applies w/ design, online, producing, etc." - Brian Manzullo

"If you were a newspaper designer you'd consider yourself a journalist. Why any different designing for a journalism app?" Scott Karp

But none of these reasons seem good enough to me. Does caring about a topic make you an expert and professional of that topic? I care about climate change, but I'm not an environmental scientist. I also apply ethics to my work, does that make me a philosopher?

The reason all the people in the first set of responses consider themselves "journalists" is because at some point in some capacity, they've all worked/written for a news publication. Traditionally, that's been a good determinant (and the only determinant) in qualifying whether someone is, indeed, a journalist. But now, contributing to the finding, organizing, and distribution of news can take many different forms (like, for example, building a news app used by journalists).

This might start to sound like a discussion on citizen journalism, but it's not (although it is a related tangent). I'm not addressing this discussion at the bloggers out there who have no affiliation with a traditional news outlet and questioning whether they are journalists. I'm directing this conversation at the people who have worked at newspapers and been trusted reporters -- when they stop reporting, do they still get to keep the title?

My answer, after much contemplation, is yes. As long as we stay committed and passionate about the act of journalism, we can keep the title.

I am a journalist -- not as a profession, but as a way of life.

It's a way of life for many of us. Increasingly, society tweets happenings that are relevant to others or take photos of crashes from the driver's seat with an iPhone.

But that's not what I mean when I say journalism is a way of life for me; it's embedded deeply into the way I think and approach news consumption.

After working at my high school newspaper, a few local papers, my college paper, as a radio reporter, etc., there is a journalistic nature to my thought processes that I will never lose. It's a trait that distinguishes me from a "citizen" journalist. I think about leads and transitions when I read a news story, analyze use of sources, think of missing gaps. Although this process is not unique to a trained journalist's news consumption habits, in my case, my habits are defined specifically by my background in journalism. And at any point, I would be able and willing to jump into investigative reporting, sifting through court documents or transcribing hours of notes.

But that's not to say that the random dude on a metro with a video camera who records a murder isn't a journalist; I would most certainly consider him one too. Would I expect him to put "journalist" on his Twitter bio, though? Certainly not. And that's where we get to the next point of discussion...

The journalist spectrum

So what is a journalist these days? There are many answers to this question. I'm a different kind of journalist than the on-call beat reporter for a local TV station, and she's a different kind of journalist than the kid with a Flip Cam.

There are different kinds of journalists now.

Initially, I was inclined to place them in a hierarchy as follows:

But there's a problem with categorizing journalists into any form of hierarchy; you imply that there are journalists who are more valuable or credible than others. This is an entirely false assumption.

In shaping a new definition of "journalist," we need to place the different types on a spectrum. A spectrum accounts for the differences among the different kinds of journalists, but also gives them equal value:

Although still imperfect, the spectrum approach gives more clarity to the different kinds of journalist in the new era of news. Of course, there is tons of overlap among the different aspects (citizens can investigate; pros can capture news with their iPhones).

Under this spectrum, nearly everyone is a journalist because everyone has something valuable to bring to the table. Trained, experienced, traditional journalists can curate, contextualize and investigate, and that job is enhanced by bloggers, tweeters and YouTubers. There is a need for both, but we're still working on finding the appropriate balance.

What does "journalist" mean to you?