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Is Rhetorical Writing Our New Destiny?

By Tony Self

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 so-called "paywall"), and his increasingly aggressive attacks on Google, seem to be another manifestation of a dramatic change in the world of journalism.

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 journalist "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: http://tvnz.co.nz/politics-news/government-pr-bill-coming-down-slowly-3118953)

If a migration from reporting to PR indeed happens, journalism will shift from "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!

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