Abigail Klein Leichman
June 6, 2012

With the decline of the newspaper industry and the rise of new media, there’s been speculation that the entire field of journalism may be heading toward extinction.

Now reporters can breathe easy, because a new study out of Israel found some specific circumstances in which book authors weren’t able to do the job as well as trained journalists.

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“Are reporters replaceable? Literary authors produce a daily newspaper,” an analysis of the research, was published recently in the international journal Journalism by Dr. Zvi Reich of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and Dr. Hagar Lahav of Sapir College, also in the Negev.

The two communications experts used a unique case: two issues of the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz that were written by an international group of authors and poets in 2009 and 2010 to celebrate Hebrew Book Week. Among the authors who took over for reporters in the special issues were Haim Be’er, Ram Oren, Umberto Eco, Jonathan Safran Foer, Margaret Atwood and Bernard-Henri Levy.

Breaking news, deadline difficulties

Reich and Lahav analyzed the weaknesses of the authors to try and determine what advantages professional journalists had over these skilled writers.

They found several such advantages. First, professional journalists have a network of existing contacts they can turn to when writing about unscheduled breaking news. Through these contacts, they can provide both coverage and news analysis of the event for readers.

“While outsiders may witness and report events – often with no less impressive output than that of professional reporters – it takes professionals to cover them without being there, thanks to their established bonds with news sources,” they wrote.

The reporters’ second advantage was the ability to turn around a story quickly, something book authors aren’t accustomed to doing. The book authors had a hard time meeting deadlines, reading the subtext and staying on point. Plus, their output was unpredictable.

“Findings suggest that the knowledge that outsiders lack when they replace political or business reporters, for example, is less involved with the specific subject matter of politics or business … and more with the all-purpose, abstract reportorial knowhow that a political reporter may have or may acquire promptly even when ‘parachuted in’ to cover a business issue,” Reich and Lahav wrote.

Although editorial guidance enabled the outsiders to write pre-scheduled assignments rather well, “unscheduled events expose its limits in bridging these knowledge gaps,” they observed.

The two concluded that while newspapers can look to other sources of copy, professional journalists cannot be replaced by other kinds of writers.

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