Is Rhetorical Writing Our New Destiny?
Last October, Mark Scott, the Managing Director of the Australian
Broadcasting Corporation, delivered a lecture entitled
The Fall of Rome: Media After Empire. The central tenet of
the talk was that the business models for traditional media publishing have
collapsed. Scott's views seem to be backed up by the startling number of
closures of American major city newspapers. The January announcement by Rupert
Murdoch of his plan to charge for online News Corporation content (the
"paywall"), and his increasingly aggressive attacks on Google,
seem to be another manifestation of a dramatic change in the world of
A Web site called
Paper Cuts (http://graphicdesignr.net/papercuts/) is
tracking the decline of newspapers. Interestingly, the site uses Web 2.0 tools
to better explain the losses in jobs, by merging layoff data with Google Maps.
In 2009, 143 newspapers stopped publishing a print edition. Over 800 jobs were
lost in US newspapers in January 2010 alone. Close to 15,000 newspaper jobs
were lost in 2009, but that was good news - 2008's figures had been worse!
What has this got to do with technical communication? Journalists and
technical communicators have a lot in common, and the fate or future of
journalism may well be similar to that of our own profession.
Despite the obvious decline in print journalism, universities are
bulging with journalism students. In 2010 Swinburne University of Technology
introduced a Bachelor of Journalism programme, which was immediately fully
subscribed. Swinburne's new contribution will bring the annual number of
journalism graduates from Melbourne alone to around 300.
It seems odd that a resurgent interest in journalism is coinciding with
a decline in the need for print journalists.
ABC TV's Lateline current affairs programme presented a
story on the apparent impending demise of print newspapers, and visited the
prestigious US Columbia School of Journalism. Not one of the journalism
graduates interviewed regularly bought a newspaper.
The change in newspaper readership is not a phenomenum limited to the
US. A Bond University survey
(http://works.bepress.com/roger_patching/11/) found that 58%
of Year 12 students catch up with the news daily. Of those regular news
"consumers", only 4% found their news in print newspapers,
preferring TV (50%), Internet (11%) and radio (6%). When asked to name a
journalist, the majority of respondents couldn't name one. The top ten names
offered by the other respondents were those of television presenters.
Some Internet news sources are the online incarnations of traditional
media organisations, but many others are non-traditional, peer-generated news
sources, written, photographed and edited by non-professional, citizen
"prosumers" - producing consumers.
Where are the new journalism graduates going to earn a living? Where are
the retrenched newspaper journalists going to go? Surely there aren't enough
jobs in TV, Internet and radio to accommodate all these journalists? The answer
may well be that journalism graduates will find jobs in the growth industries
of public relations,
"spin doctoring" and media liaison. (The New Zealand
Government employs an 321 departmental media managers. The Conservation
Department's tally grew from eight to 16 in the nine years from 2000, according
to a ONE News investigation. Source:
If a migration from reporting to PR indeed happens, journalism will
"expository" writing (the art of informing) to
"rhetorical" writing (the art of persuasion).
So, to ask a rhetorical question, what can our profession learn from
journalism? In the same way that the information previously supplied by
journalists is now coming from other sources, we can probably see that manuals
and user guide content is being usurped by video, interactive tutorials, Wikis,
blogs, and peer-support forums. We can expect that the decline (or lack of
growth) of expository technical writing will be offset by the rise of
rhetorical technical writing. Writing for Web sites, sales materials, tender
responses, proposals, and marketing channels.
Such a move to rhetorical writing may present challenges for many
technical communicators (including ethical questions). We must also ensure that
we convince employers that technical communicators are ready, willing and able
to take up the challenges. Otherwise those unemployed journalists may be
snapping at our heels!