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Journalist: What’s In A Name?

Loose thoughts on defining a journalist

josh sternberg
3 min readAug 3, 2013

There used to be a time when the word “journalist” evoked a clear, if not consistent vision: a man (always a man) chomping on cigar or cigarette hunkered behind a typewriter, clacking away under a billow of smoke, a glass of whiskey on the corner of the desk, a fedora perched above his brow, maybe even a piece of paper wedged in the brim that read “PRESS.”

A journalist, as imagined by our memories and romanticized by Hollywood, was someone who studied people, finding holes in those people’s stories, asking questions only learned after years of hitting the ground, spending the dark morning hours at police precincts, understanding the local beat.

Now, all you need is a smartphone, a Twitter account and a point of view.

When there were only a few news outlets, be it just newspapers or television or radio, the imagined journalist was an objective narrator, explaining the rhythms of the day. He reported what he saw; he reported what others saw. Just the facts ma’am.Today, however, the term “journalist” is vague. Trying to define journalist raises tempers.

As the media world evolved, from general news to niche content, from devoted audience to audience fragmentation, so has what it means to be a journalist.

The barriers to entry are also much lower. Granted, they were never that high to begin with. There’s no entrance exam.

Is a journalist someone who writes? Someone who talks to sources? Someone who “curates” social media updates? Someone who pontificates, theorizes? Someone who speaks truth to power, or trades objectivity for access? Someone who translates statistics into storytelling? Someone who takes information other reporters have worked to produce and repackage it for a different audience?

The answer is yes.

Is a journalist someone who writes for a newspaper? A magazine? A website? A TV network? A blog? Is a journalist someone embedded with the military in Afghanistan? Or writing about war from a plush D.C.-suburban house? Is a journalist someone in bed with a brand? What about the people who get paid to write about sex, drugs and rock and roll? Are they in the same camp as the legions of people who get paid to write about diapers, vomit and late-night breast feedings? Is a journalist someone who writes about gadgets or hotels or restaurants or financial markets? What if these journalists got paid by a media organization? Or by brands themselves? What if these journalists got paid to travel, to review new toys, or eat at new eateries?

The answer is yes.

The image of a journalist now is much different. We sit in front of a computer, Tweetdeck and Facebook open one screen, the vast open Web (and our CMS) open on another. We no longer wear fedoras, at least those of us who realize how silly it looks to wear fedoras. Many stopped smoking, and the ones that still do, go outside to puff. Whiskey still sits on the corner of the desk. Or a large cup of coffee. We moonlight for brands (or cross the PR fence) because the economics of media have squeezed out reporters (though interestingly, not the execs on the business side of the house).

This last point, this writing content for brands, sparks much debate. Journalist purists, those who think of Journalism, an institution that changes hearts and minds (and policy) turn their nose at the notion of a journalist writing a story for a brand, regardless if that story doesn’t mention the brand. That’s fine. In fact, that’s needed.

But there are more writers out there than journalists. Thing is, “journalist” is always evolving.

Definitions, we know, are tricky. Not only do we debate what (or who) is a journalist, but what, exactly, is an ad. A topic for another day.



josh sternberg

Executive Editor at Morning Brew. Priors: Adweek, WaPo, NBC News, Digiday. Bylines: The Awl, Entrepreneur, Mashable, The Atlantic, Vice, HuffPost, etc etc etc