Is Outdoor Journalism Dead or Just On Life-Support?

What I’m about to write is surely going to upset a few people…heck, perhaps a lot of people. I really don’t care. I’m at that stage in my career where if I feel something needs to be said I’m not about to hold back from saying it. It’s a topic that’s been rattling around in my head now for over a year. I anticipate disagreement. I can even predict some backlash, among a few. All I have to say is…bring it! I believe this topic is long overdue for thoughtful consideration and discussion.

So, here it goes:

Social media influencers are NOT journalists!

Brand ambassadors are NOT journalists!

Many Bloggers are NOT journalists!

Content creators are NOT journalists!

Pro Staffers(for a given brand) are NOT journalists!

Copy writers are NOT journalists!

Even Editorial directors are sometimes NOT journalists!

A Brand strategist is NOT a journalist!

Sometimes even so-called “Journalists” are NOT even true journalists!

Vloggers are usually NOT journalists!

A Freelance writer doesn’t always adhere to journalistic principles.

In my mind there is no such thing as Public Relations journalism!

Likewise, Brand marketers are NOT journalists!

Neither should the words “journalism” and “brand affiliates” be used in the same sentence (unless it’s mine!)

The point is there are a lot of individuals who falsely portray themselves as journalistic professionals in today’s dynamic and ever-evolving media field. Wasn’t always that way. Back when I first attended an outdoor writers conference in 1988 my perception of members were that most had strong journalistic ethics. What does this mean?

Simply put, these folks communicated to a readership/viewership audience that could trust what they were being told without some commercial underlying influence. If a product was being reviewed, they knew the writer was free to give their honest opinion about the product’s true worth. If a hunting lodge was being rated it would be a complete accounting of all the positives and negatives of said facility. Nothing sugar coated as a means to repay a favor for free lodging and/or for a good time.

Quite honestly trying to find good journalism today is about as elusive as trying to find a wiley ol’ buck that always seems to vanish come fall. Oh, don’t get me wrong…I’m not saying how good journalism is completely dead. It’s still out there and flourishing in the hearts and souls of many writers. The problem is today the reader has to search hard for it…as it doesn’t always come easy. Indeed, a brand ambassador who often sports a sponsored logoed jersey makes things a bit more obvious. Yet, what about that writer acting more like a content creator just trying to go trolling for unsuspecting readers who are anxious to buy “new stuff.”

I may have used this example before, but I will say it again. About fifteen years ago I was at the SHOOTING, HUNTING and OUTDOOR TRADE (SHOT) Show when I got approached at an after-hours party by someone with a proposal. They wanted me to write for them. Sounded like a great opportunity…so I listened. What I ultimately heard I simply did not like.

They wanted me to write about products and do a review. I questioned if I could give an honest review…that’s when they were quick to point out how only if the review is positive in focus. You see, they would be test products from their advertisers so the goal was to ONLY speak well of the products and not upset any inflow of advertising revenue. In effect, it was not even necessary for me to actually field test the products because ultimately the article could be written without even removing any product from the box.

Folks, that’s not journalism…yet so much of what’s written today has this heavy handed advertiser influence. I get it, in life we have to realize who butters our bread, so to speak. In that way every writer who picks up a pencil or pounds on a keyboard has to make the decision of how they want to do it. More importantly, every READER also has some decisions to make and they’re not always easy to determine like they once were in the outdoors media.

This also happened a number of years ago while I was at SHOT for an after-hours party. I was in line with my wife for our turn at cocktails when a stranger approached me and reached for my name badge so he could more easily see it. Immediately upon confirming who I was he proceeded into a tirade about something I had written pertaining to his product a few years earlier. He was the inventor of the product and took great exception to my critical analysis of the practicality and safety of the product. Years of his pent up anger with me came spewing out for about ten minutes as I was trying to unwind from a long day on the SHOT show floor.

When a writer says something negative about a product he has a responsibility to be fair and honest. In my heart, to this day, I told it like I did because it needed to be said. In my opinion, the product had design flaws and it was important for the reader to learn about an alternate viewpoint that could result in potential health concerns. I didn’t say not to purchase or use the product, just offered my expert analysis on why said product would never be seen in my shopping cart.

The list could go on and on why most of what we read or view today is not a product of good journalism. And that’s okay…provided the people who are consuming the words or the video take this into account and enjoy it for what it is. Yet, that doesn’t always happen.

Now, let me also say this. Many of the aforementioned people I began this post mentioning are good communicators. I don’t take that away from them. Do I still read them? You bet! Do they serve a purpose in the outdoors world sharing their knowledge and expertise. Without a doubt they do! Yet, readers need to realize how the influence of their words is more brand motivated rather than journalism driven.

Perhaps my biggest beef is with the professional writing organizations, who in my opinion, have this all wrong. Last year there was a regional writing organization who pictured four of their member writers in a Facebook post. Each of these individuals were brand ambassadors for either a boat company or a fishing tackle manufacturer. You could go to their respective websites and there they were listed as such.

Okay, no problem with that…right? Wrong, I have a big problem with that. To earn membership entry into the writing organization you have to earn a specified number of published credits. For me, as a freelancer, I have a set process typically required in order to have my work considered as material for publication. For them, they have the power of the brand behind their name(along with the influence, I might add) to get their message published with little to no editorial consideration.

Now, I ask you…does a writer who must go out and query an editor with a story idea and then subsequently produce the content seem like a better candidate for membership in a professional writing organization. Or, does a writer who was chosen by a corporate public relations department to push marketing content using the influence of their brand make a better choice. In the end each person has the published credentials to join said organization, but in my mind only one is truly a worthy candidate for membership as a writer(journalist).

For that reason I have been disillusioned by the entire outdoors communication profession as of late. Too many phony’s! Too many wannabes! Too many who have weaseled their way in not by solely using their talents to make a name for themselves, but instead gaining notoriety with a brand first and then choosing to becoming a communicator.

As I look to concluding this diatribe of my opinion I want to emphasize this. As readers, be careful to whom you listen for your outdoor information. So many of today’s outdoor communicators are much like most politicians. Sometimes it take years to figure out whose pockets they have their hands in when they try to influence you. Be skeptical. Don’t take everything you read as complete fact. There may be much more to the story they don’t want you to know because of their relational influences.

And to most, if not all of the outdoors writers’ organizations, it’s time to do a gut check. In my book most of the writer organizations have simply let the outdoor journalism profession down as much as anyone by not maintaining high standards that were once in place. In my mind membership in these organizations once meant a high honor, something a person could be proud to display on their business card. Today, it’s just a waste of $200+ membership dues to perpetuate the ruse I have started to clearly outline in this blog post.

As I inch closer to retirement I yearn for a renewal of the journalistic integrity that was once the hallmark of the outdoor communications profession. Currently it’s like a ship sailing without a rudder…somehow we need to steer this boat back on a professional course. It’s time both writers and readers demand the excellence derived from good journalism practices and give it the priority it deserves in our outdoors media.