Artisanal Journalism

The phrase “artisanal journalism” has been doing the rounds for a few years now, and most often the analogy is made to cheese. It makes sense, in a way. Cheese has always been the prime reference point when considering artisanal foods. Just as there are a multitude of levels of cheeses: from the unspeakable notion of cheese-in-a-can, to the fine art of producing the perfect Camembert, so does journalism fill a variety of levels. And “artisanal reportage” is nowhere near a “tweet-in-a-can”.

In an age of soundbite reporting, when the general media feels the need to encompass only the most basic data in 150 words or less, leaving those who actually WANT to be informed about the world with a growing frustration, data-driven news reporting will always have a place. People do need to know what happened on their street, how many were impacted, the results of an election, and so on. On the other side of the coin, investigative journalism is a luxury few can afford. Spending inordinate amounts of time diving down rabbit holes to get to all the facts of a case is time-consuming, and important, but is often difficult to do in the broader, commercial market. So, what lies between soundbites and investigations? With media companies relying more heavily on freelancers to sustain their business model, the new breed of journalist is now filling a niche that is as varied and delectable as the multitude of cheeses available in almost every nook and cranny of the world.

Utilizing hard news data and investigative reporting to assist in the production of artisanal journalism, freelancers can offer each market a unique and, to risk overstretching the metaphor, tasty meal to audiences. The same talented writer who can research and create an informative long-form essay on the dangers of climate change, can also deliver a profound work on the advantages of travel to a new holiday destination. But, instead of making the article accessible to every audience, everywhere, occasionally dumbing it down to result in little more than “chewing gum for the brain”, the “niche” becomes the important focus. Directing writing to a particular audience, tapping into an existing consumer base who can appreciate the deeper and often more intellectual aspects of the topic, becomes the writer’s purpose.

Being versatile in today’s media market means being able to tell a story on various platforms: print, digital, audio, video, and all their sub-sets. Sourcing the information and being fully engaged in a topic, the writer also become their own editor, without the old-fashioned hierarchy that used to fill newsrooms. Honing skills in this way does not make an editor obsolete, but it does mean that without that chain of command, and given a certain autonomy, there is a higher value placed on the writer’s reputation. When a writer is less able to hide behind the hierarchy, the better ones will start to rise from the masses of people who only think they can write well.

Print is still popular. Despite almost everyone and their uncle having access to books, magazines, and newspapers on their phone, tablet or other gadget, there is still a high demand for the printed word. Perspective Publications still sells more journals through print, than the cheaper digital option. But, even as the daily news available at the local supermarket is the go-to source for the facts, and only the facts, ma’am, the new option extends to a publication that can take a longer, wider, deeper, perspective of a story. The journalist, potentially unbound by an hourly deadline, can source all the available information, and compile it into a larger, “big picture” story, which allows readers to fully understand the context. In other words, “artisanal journalism” really means “knowledge-based”. It demands a high degree of writing, a more nuanced presentation, a demand for objectivity, and a readership that is keen to be informed.

As we progress through the 21st century, and the world grows smaller and closer, the issues that were once only read about deep in the folds of a newspaper, are now on our front doorstep. The “artisan journalist”, usually a freelancer struggling to bring readers the information they need to know, is commonly found in the most unsung niche: the humanitarian media. These journalists endeavor to place the world in context: why does a Saharan sandstorm affect people living in South America? Why does it matter to someone in America that someone in Sierra Leone contracted Ebola? And they’ll tell you why it matters to a Canadian that Syrian refugees are fleeing death and destruction, or how a blossoming Arab Spring affects South Africans.

The ability to explain, not just the profound impact of that sandstorm, but WHY you need to know about it, is a gift given by the writer to the general population. It takes talented and skilled individuals, with an ability to inform and educate, to bring a nuanced and complex world to a reader who wasn’t aware they needed to know the information. The best artisanal journalist is a storyteller, and the world needs more really great storytellers.