By Sally Baxter
May 19, 2013
What makes a journalist? A lot of people – inside and outside the profession – are asking that question. If you think it takes a genius, think again. Good journalists have a representative of their audience in mind who informs every step of their work. My background’s print, so it’s natural for me to refer to a reader. Who’s your reader, a genius or an idiot?
My first Editor was also my dad which means I spent a good deal of my career wondering if I was a journalist at all. I certainly didn’t feel I really was until I was a newspaper reporter, but that was later.
In 1980 I finished high school in Brisbane and went back to Hong Kong to plot my next move.
When I’d left, Bax had a talkback show on Commercial Radio (that’s how small the market was – that was the name of the station) and was filling in the rest of his time with a little computer magazine he’d started.
By the time I returned Computer-Asia had grown enough to warrant all his attention. It was still a tiny operation, running out of a backroom behind the Hong Kong Press Club in Wanchai. There was Bax, John the ad sales guy and Teresa the paste-up artist.
I had pitched up in the middle of the mad rush which happened once a month to get the magazine to bed and Bax dragged me, still jetlagged, the very next day to help out.
I didn’t contribute much I’m sure but it was a great introduction to the swirling excitement of deadlines and the dead calm at the centre, where evey line must be carefully checked first for spelling and punctuation and then again for meaning.
The operation was so small and so tight for cash our final job was to stick the subscriber copies into envelopes as soon as they arrived back from the printer and make sure it was at the front of every newsstand we passed on the way home.
Bax, recognising the value of cheap labour, asked me to stay. But, I told him, I don’t know anything about computers.
“Neither do I,” he said.
“And nor do most of our readers. Our job is to explain it to them.”
Bax told me we were writing for the business people who knew this stuff was important but didn’t have the first idea what it meant.
“Our reader’s probably a middle-aged guy in the middle of a middle-sized company whose boss is either about to invest in computing or has just done so.
“He’s got these weird new people with weird new titles talking a language he can’t understand telling him he’s got to do things differently.
“He doesn’t want to look like an idiot to his boss but he’s not convinced any of this stuff is going to help him do his job better.
“That’s your reader. You get to talk to the experts. Go and ask them the things that guy needs to know.”
I pointed out the obvious truth that Computer-Asia was also read by computer experts, to whom I would rightly appear the most wretched fool.
Which is when Bax introduced me to the great paradox at the heart of journalism, that of the genius and the idiot.
Basically, it doesn’t matter what your subject is, you have to write for both the guy who knows nothing about it and the guy who knows just about everything.
“Oh, and he’s in a hurry so you’d better make it worth his while to stop and read what you’ve got to say.
“Don’t worry about the genius. You’ll meet lots of those and once you learn a bit of the jargon it’ll be easy to think you’re a genius too.
“You’re not. You’re an idiot. You’re there on behalf of all the other idiots, going where they can’t easily go and asking the questions they would ask if they had the opportunity.
“Don’t ever stop being an idiot.”
And here’s the thing. Every day we met our genius readers. We hosted annual golf tournaments for them, met them in our daily rounds and received by turn their congratulatory slaps on the back and pointed figures of abuse.
Our genius readers were the computer managers who were running the mainframes in the big companies (they were all big companies then), and the salespeople from the big companies (and they too were all big companies then) who made the things.
In those days all the geniuses spent a lot of time telling us and each other that the new microcomputers would never amount to anything serious.
Bax was such an idiot he started Micro-Asia two years later, in the days of the Sinclair ZX80 and its magnificent eight bits. He backed ‘microcomputer’ over ‘PC’ but that was about the only thing he got wrong – what we’d eventually call these things.
He was such an idiot he asked Steve Jobs a really dumb question at the launch of the Macintosh about touchscreen technology which earned a sneer from the Great Man.
“Listen to me,” he snapped and everyone in the room froze. “The mouse is the pointing device for the rest of this century. Nothing else will have a look in.”
That’s how it was reported by David Frith in his obituary of Jobs for The Australian.
So I learned early the value of being an idiot with a few dumb questions, the sort of questions any idiot would ask if they had the chance.
But back in those days there was a huge divide between journalist and audience. That’s been smashed and in the ensuing chaos it’s not unusual to stumble upon the existential question: What makes a journalist?
If it’s just being an idiot then our numbers are now legion, as the coverage of the Boston bombings made clear, with many journalists performing no better than ordinary citizens.
When it comes to accurate reporting it may be we are all just ill-informed idiots now.
And yet, we recognise the difference when we see it. It’s the pretty obvious difference between “OMG A BOMB!” and “There are unverified reports of an explosion. Stay tuned for updates”.
What makes a journalist? Now, more than ever, the relationship with the audience – the mythical middle manager, the person trying to make ends meet, the person who was described in a different age as the “man on the omnibus,” the idiot.
That’s it. Be an idiot, ask the dumb questions any idiot would ask.
But, never, ever treat the audience like fools. Not if you want to be a real journalist.