Pro-Am World

In October, as Heath mentioned earlier this week, Charles Leadbetter kicked off the magazine with an opening essay on the Amateur Revolution. "The 20th century was marked by the rise of professionals," he said. "Now that historic shift seems to be reversing... we're witnessing the flowering of Pro-Am, bottom-up self-organization." Leadbetter was onto something.

Earlier this month, the New Yorker's James Surowiecki made his own case for the amateur when he laid into the "principal-agent problem." His essay, which touches off on the price-fixing and corruption scandal at Marsh & McLennan, describes an "economy in which knowledge is increasingly specialized and deferring to the judgment of experts makes sense." Problem is, those with the know-how (the professionals) are in a position to take advantage of those without (the amateurs). While scandals like those at Marsh are the exception, the author illuminates a couple of the darker corners of commerce (see the bit about real estate agents). Surowiecki's conclusion: "If the middleman offend thee, cut him out"... Become the professional-amateur.

As if to drive this home, Wikipedia, the online encyclopedia that popped up here just last week, has launched Wikinews, a free-content news database assembled by "citizen journalists." In other words: anybody. Really. "If you see a headline linking to an empty story, you can create it," reads the home page. "If a story needs to be moved to a new title as events develop, please move it."

My question is this: will developments like this expand the boundaries of how we define "news," or just blur them? An amateur, by virtue of the very definition, is someone who does not specialize - someone without professional training. But in some fields - medicine and law enforcement come to mind - there really isn't a lot of room for amateur alternatives. (No offense to Neighborhood Watch or midwifery, but I'll take a cop or an MD.) Fortunately, the media is not as clearly defined - just look how we've benefited from the rise of the blogosphere. Clearly no one owns the news, but will people buy into amateur news sites?

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  • Jeremy

    The first definition you linked to was certainly the one most closely aligned with the Pro-Am article: "A person who engages in an art, science, study, or athletic activity as a pastime rather than as a profession." Your interpretation completely misses the point -- amateurs do specialize, and they may specialize to the point where they know more about a very specific topic than an expert in a broader field. Let's be honest -- professional (academic) training is often a facade, a series of hoops to jump through for a piece of paper that might not include much usable knowledge.

    For example, a devoted amateur radio enthusiast who has been "playing" with radios for 20 years knows more sending and receiving signals with different types of equipment in different conditions than a new electrical engineering grad. If your task was to set up a DIY radio system in a remote area, who would you rather have along?

    Midwifery has nothing to do with this issue, since midwives are obviously professionals. Today's midwife has completed rigorous training, certification and apprenticeship, and usually has more first-hand experience with births than any doctor.

    A more appropriate example might be someone who has taken a keen interest in births as an area of interest, and sets out to learn everything there is to know about the topic (using the web, library, friends and other non-official sources of knowledge). Maybe they volunteer at hospitals to work with moms in labor, or offer counselling to expectant mothers. Perhaps they become advocates for womens' rights, study to become a doula, or just want to be prepared to have their own children.

    "Clearly no one owns the news, but will people buy into amateur news sites?"
    You answered your own question in the preceding sentence -- blogs are amateur news sites, and people have clearly bought in.

    Sorry for the cantankerous tone -- I was glad to see the articles linked here, but was disappointed with the follow-up.