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.

Remembrance Tribute–Neil J. Braaten

Losing a loved one is never easy. In fact, there is perhaps no other event during our lifetime that elicits such an array of deeply-rooted emotions. We feel loss…we can feel angry…we can feel incredibly sad…we can exist for a short time in a state of disbelief. These are all natural reactions shared at some time by everyone in life. We all eventually lose a loved one.

Yet, there is something very important that can help us to move beyond these raw emotions caused by the death of a loved one. It’s called memories. That’s right…those fond recollections of a person can help us move forward in life even without them.

Here’s the key concept to comprehend. Memories are the gift the departed leave for those of us still living. Did you get that? Let’s read it again and this time let it sink in. <read slowly and think> Memories are the special gift given to each of us by those who have departed our life. To understand this is fundamental and a big element of the healing process.

Today, we gather to celebrate the life of Neil Joseph Braaten. Neil was many things to many different people. Of course, he was the family man to Jamie, Sophia and Evelyn. He was the loving and ever dependable son to Terry and Barb. He was the best possible brother to Krista. The list could go on as to what Neil meant to his family and to his friends.

Indeed, Neil was a multi-faceted person with a wide range of responsibilities and life interests. But today I’m not going to talk about his love for low-riding cars and souped up pickups. I’m not going to dwell on his love of sports or his coaching abilities. Instead, today I’m going to focus on Neil and his love for the out-of-doors lifestyle, for those are the memories of Neil I cherish most deeply.

The respected author Robert Ruark once wrote, “The best thing about hunting is that you don’t have to actually do it to enjoy it. You can go to bed every night thinking about how much fun you had twenty years ago, and it all comes back as clear as moonlight.”

Memories! Memories are what fuels the passions of our life existence. Memories can be those embarrassing moments you wish everyone would forget. Memories can be those special times shared that you wish would never end. Memories are a special gift…don’t forget it.

And so it is with Neil Braaten I wish to share up some memories he had with his uncle. Here is one of my early favorites. Neil was perhaps five or six years old and wanted his uncle to take him fishing. I took him fishing. We went to the dam at King Mill Park in Faribault and proceeded to catch a pail full of bullheads. Neil was so excited. I shared in his excitement…up until the point he asked the dreaded question…”can we take them home and eat them?”

Neil showing off his fish
(Note–not the fish described in the text)

You see…I was hopeful we would catch a slightly higher quality fish…but to a small kid a fish is a fish. His enthusiasm was off the charts. Neil’s plan was to take them home to show Grandma, clean them up and to say he helped feed the family.

Well, eventually it was nap time for young Neil and his uncle took care of the fish while he slept. As I recall the bullheads became fertilizer in Grandma’s garden and the fish we consumed that evening drew a close resemblance to the fish sticks that came out of a box featuring an iconic yellow-clad fisherman.

It was about this same age when Neil talked his uncle into taking him tent camping. It was also about this time in life when I learned to be careful with what you agree to…because kids will hold you to it. I procrastinated and finally succumb to the pressure of young Neil’s persistence. Let’s go camping back in the Braaten woods.

Now, I should have known better how camping in late October has some unique challenges. As we would eventually discover, the moderately temped days turn into darned cold nights in Minnesota. Neil’s uncle came prepared…Neil did not. No sleeping bag…just a coat.

So, the longest night of my life began as I fought off hypothermia only to watch my nephew enjoy the comfort and warmth of MY sleeping bag until daybreak. Sacrifices…that’s what uncles do! I learned this early in my adult life.

As Neil matured from the young kid he once was he developed a passion for hunting that we both eventually shared. Two years ago Neil had one of his most memorable encounters with a deer. During most of that summer we had been watching several nice deer through the aid of our deer cameras. Once the season opened it was “go time” for our hunting crew.

Neil took great care in the location of his deer stand. Following one of the fundamentals of deer hunting theory, you place your hunting stand where the deer travel. Neil found this well-used river crossing that he thought would be his meal ticket. His plans worked out perfectly. On a crisp November morning two years ago Neil found himself face-to-face standing just 15 yards away with a trophy 13-point buck. It was the buck that promised to fulfill his dreams.

The buck Neil encountered
(as described in the text)

But not so fast. As any seasoned deer hunter knows all too well…deer hunting is unpredictable. The best laid plans can somehow go awry. What Neil failed to take into account was how after this deer crossed the Little Cannon River the riverbank brought it uphill facing directly at Neil’s tree stand. What commenced was Neil unable to make a move for fear of spooking the deer in what would have been a very abrupt and chaotic departure.

There they both stood staring at each other. Neil with his potential dream perhaps moments away from turning into reality. The deer inquisitively staring trying to figure out what that big mass was in the tree when it wasn’t there yesterday.

Soon it all ended with the deer bounding off quickly and Neil unable to even raise his gun to his shoulder. It’s experiencing moments like that which make climbing out of a warm bed in the morning to go sit in a cold tree so exciting for a hunter. On that day Neil took memories from the woods that lasted him a lifetime. Later that evening back in hunting camp, Neil vividly described the event and the emotions of the experience. It’s what hunters do.

Each day of our lives we create memories. Memories that occasionally we sometimes cherish ourselves…and at other times memories we indelibly etch into the minds of our family and friends around us. That’s why it’s important to live a life that can be filled with good memories. Those to keep for ourselves…but also those to share with others around us.

To know Neil Braaten was to know a good man. He had a heart of gold and a caring spirit about him that simply knew no bounds. He loved to poke fun at people, but likewise wasn’t above being the source of people’s laughter. His smile was contagious and could light a room. He also had such a calming sense when the time was appropriate. He excelled at being a good father and family man…and took much pride in doing so.

Yes, indeed, everyone who was ever touched by Neil’s life in some manner was richer for having had the experience. I urge you to take a moment and think about those fond memories of Neil. He worked hard to create those memories…he wouldn’t want you to forget them anytime soon.

And remember, memories are a gift that nobody…and I mean nobody…can ever take away from you–not even by the person on a journey without us towards Heaven’s gate.

CLICK HERE for a link to Neil’s obituary

CLICK HERE for a link to the family’s GoFundMe page

CLICK HERE for a link to the recorded funeral service.