Wannabehacks: The Writer/Journalist Identity Crisis

This column originally appeared on Wannabehacks on December 23rd.

It took me a while to realise that I was in the middle of an identity crisis, but only because my single experience of such a thing was from my school days. Jonathan Pye, in Year 4, came into school one day and declared that he must now be known as Sophie. He stood on his tip toes, he was a ballerina. He was fucking mental.

Thankfully my experience is far less warped than that, but I’m still baffled. I’m not sure what to call myself when I mingle, network, or generally meet new people. Am I a journalist, or a writer?

I remember last year I met a friend of a friend in a London club; he is a mildly famous person but not so much so that it’s worth naming him. I told him what I do, ‘I’m a journalist’, to which he said, ‘Oh, who do you work for?’

FHM,’ was my reply, to which he pulled a face. ‘FHM? That’s not real journalism,’ he declared.

I wondered about what he meant. Real journalism? Is that the non-media types way of saying that consumer work (or magazine work, or both) isn’t considered journalism? Maybe I should refer  to myself as a writer. But that makes me sound like either (a) those guys on Family Guy who sit in Starbucks and write novels or (b) a crusty old has-been who hasn’t had anything published, who spends his time spilling baked bean juice on his typewriter and stinking of cats, all the while refusing to leave the sanctuary of his dressing gown.

Anyway, in my current position I’m not a journalist in the sense that I don’t REPORT on things. I don’t break stories, or declare anything particularly new. Most of my work is feature-based, and even the news stories I write are usually about the newest pair of Stan Smith’s being released or a new store opening in London. Not like my friend, a reporter for The Cornishman, who often gets a front page detailing the most grisly of murders.

So I started thinking pragmatically about this journalist/writer conundrum. It can’t be so simple that newspapers/serious stuff make you a journalist and magazine/lifestyle stuff makes you a writer. What about people who work on websites, like Digital Spy? If their music editor announces that Coldplay will be opening an envelope for charity or that Adele was caught buying a candle, is that journalism? The site is, after all, entertainment news…

Or live-blogging, chronicling the opening of an envelope or the engaging story of Adele buying a candle. What does that count as? I think it’s reporting. Though if you’re watching Rupert Murdoch get grilled on the telly and you’re typing something hilarious into Twitter, maybe not.

I can’t be the only one suffering an identity crisis (of my variety, I’m not interested in gender confusion here). Since the original pastiche of reporters – white shirt, braces, shouting atpress conferences and getting pictures of Spiderman – has been so diluted by digital content, magazine work, social media, publications like Project (the iPad magazine) and Blokely (my current place of work; an online magazine behind a subscription service), it’s understandable that people are confused.

Especially when qualifications often don’t lead people onto the paths they find themselves; you can do an NCTJ if you’d like to be a journalist, or maybe a Magazine Journalism MA if you’d like to be in magazines, but I’m sure we all know people who did one and went on to do the other.

In fact, of the crop of NCTJ students I studied with, I’d say the minority are the ones doing the straight-laced, down-the-middle presupposed notion of journalism. Others work in magazines, on features desks, they copywrite, they staple things on to other things and so on. There’s not one word to describe us all (except maybe Hacks, though that’s like calling a photographer a snapper or a Sales Assistant a shelf stacker).

Furthermore, with people constantly telling us that we’ll look at copies of magazines and papers in museums and gawp at what we see, tugging our friends sleeves and saying ‘Crikey, how funny that the internet used to be printed out onto the skin of beautiful trees and then wrapped around deep-fried fish’, there’s a lot of evidence to assume people will be moving around print, digital, radio and television in future with the liquored-up limberness of a drunk fresher at a party.

So, what to do, what to do. As you can see, moping on about it hasn’t done me any favours in figuring out whether I’m a reporter, a journalist, a lion, a witch or a wardrobe. Maybe the crucial thing – and I might be on to something here, since the debate was only stirred when the famous one raised his eyebrows – is that actually, it doesn’t matter.

Do let me know your thoughts…unless you’re Jonathan Pye, because sorry for being a bit mean but you were absolutely terrifying, especially that time when you got your head stuck in the back of a chair? How does someone do that with their eyes closed?

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