New Hampshire is getting out of the press credentialing business. For decades the state government issued identification cards to select members of the media through its Department of Safety. But late last month the Department announced that, effective February 1, it was suspending the practice, explaining "recent changes in technology and the structure of the news media have greatly expanded the definition of who is considered a 'journalist' far beyond the employees of traditional news organizations." Noting a significant increase in the number of requests for media press passes due to the emergence of alternative forms of media, the Department concluded: "either we must issue such ID to virtually anyone who asks for it or be placed in the position of deciding who is or is not a legitimate journalist," which "is not an appropriate role for a state agency."
Not long ago, the boundaries between journalists and everyone else seemed relatively clear: those who worked for established news organizations were journalists, while everyone else was not. Today, the lines distinguishing "professional" journalists from other people who disseminate information, ideas and opinions to a wide audience have been blurred, perhaps beyond recognition, by forces both inside and outside the media itself.
Most Americans instinctively recognize the importance of a free press, and journalism as a whole has justifiably assumed special standing in our society. In recognition of that importance, over decades we have created a system in which those working for established news organizations are frequently given priority over others -- such as admission to crime scenes and other areas off limits to the public, special access to official records, and the benefits of quasi-official status at many government buildings.
Such a system requires, of course, that government officials decide who qualifies as a "journalist." Before the development of the Web such judgments were generally uncontroversial, since the circumstances in which those not affiliated with traditional news organizations were actually denied privileges they sought were relatively few -- typically limited to the occasional book author, documentary filmmaker or freelancer.
But things of have changed. Today, it is apparent that people operating outside of traditional media organizations (including many bloggers), individually and collectively, play a significant role in breaking, analyzing and distributing news. And this seems certain to continue, as more and more people take to the Web in an effort to share information and ideas with others.
As New Hampshire's Department of Safety recognized, we can no longer get by with a "we know it when we see it" approach to press credentialing. It responded to this predicament by extracting itself altogether from the business of issuing press passes. But in New Hampshire, and elsewhere, there are likely to be many circumstances in which governments decide they should continue extending preferences to at least some journalists. When they do, they ought to take a broad view of journalism, and conceive of it as an activity rather than a job title.
Some might object to this conception of journalism, contending it devalues established news organizations and suggests that their work is no more trustworthy or important than that of novices. But such objections miss an important point. As consumers we can (and should) exercise our own judgments about the quality, reliability and value of journalistic offerings. Yet when the government puts itself in the position of allocating privileges to those engaged in journalism activities, it rarely (if ever) should decide who qualifies for those privileges based on what method the person uses to each out to others, or on subjective views about the importance or quality of someone's work, or the viewpoints expressed. Making the government an arbiter of whether certain information or ideas are worth advancing is akin to what is referred to as "content regulation" of speech, which is strongly disfavored. It also resembles licensing of the press, which the First Amendment was designed, in part, to avoid.
Technological developments are democratizing communications as a whole, and journalism in particular. As this transformation unfolds, we must adjust our conception of journalism, and the legal framework built upon it, to reflect that there may be journalists who make it their profession, but one need not be a professional journalist to practice journalism. And when deciding who among those practicing journalism should receive government preferences, we must keep firmly in mind that the First Amendment is for all of us -- that press freedom is an individual right belonging to a person passing out leaflets on a street corner just as much as a reporter for the Wall Street Journal or USA Today.
Scott Gant, an attorney, is author of the book, We're All Journalists Now: The Transformation of the Press and Reshaping of the Law in the Internet Age.