Journalism – A stand-up job!

Stand up for JournalismI’m Standing Up for Journalism today (even though it makes it pretty tricky to reach the keyboard). The NUJ is using today to focus attention on what it sees as the erosion of quality journalism on many fronts and across all media.

Can’t really talk about this though in my sector (new media) without getting my own 2pworth into the storm in a TCP-IP, which the union has been embroiled in over the last couple of weeks. Prof Roy Greenslade, Guardian media columnist and all round pinnacle of the profession, and Telegraph media blogger Shane Richmond, along with the Uncle Tom Cobbley and all of web2.0, have been sounding off about the NUJ, with Roy taking the monumental step of tearing up his membership card in his annoyance. I think he’s making a mistake over this (though as a former NUJ New Media sector rep, I would say that), and both he and the union will be missing out by not having his voice in internal discussions as things develop.

The trigger for the current dispute seems to be that the NUJ journal (The Journalist) ran a feature on the union’s new Commission on Multi-Media Working, with a rather provocative snippet from NEC member Donnacha DeLong. This apparently demonstrates (before the Commission’s actual report has had a chance to come out) that the union don’t “get it”, and that in journalism, this signifies the extinction of us dinosaurs and the inexorable rise of the hip young mammals of 2.0.

This is the article, which everyone is taking offense at. Though to me, it looks more like they’ve been waiting, poised to take offense, for some time and sprung at this in lieu of something more significant. It does seem to be pretty tame stuff to me, and whilst Donnacha’s red rag of cynicism on the hype around “web2.0” caught their eye, much of his core concern seems to be shared by his detractors – namely that the profession is actually worth something, and worth supporting.

I’m more of a dewey-eyed 2.0phile than Donnacha, and think the potential for media is something pretty exciting, but at the same time I don’t think Donnacha is at all wrong to say that a cynically inspired (read cost-cutting) focus on content recycling, along with a general increase in user generated content for the wrong reasons, and commensurate decrease in professionally sourced content, has the potential to threaten our news in a way that won’t serve any of us.

Take the example of social bookmarking for news. You’ll get a great read from Reddit or Digg, or your own feed aggregator, and it will be exactly what you like. We need to find some way of keeping hold of the high professional standards of MSM (main stream media), in order to make the most of the specialisation of Reddit when we’re researching news closer to our interests. If the best the Guardian can hope is that it might get a Slashdotting once a fortnight to boost the ad impressions, and the rest of the time it’ll be scrabbling for Diggs with blogs recycling the expensive-to-research Guardian stories in their own words, then there won’t be enough revenue to keep it running, or at least to keep it any way good.

The addition of public comment to professional news is a great boost, and can actually help to improve journalism – keeping the hacks on their toes. But some of the UK’s better regional news outfits will suffer further if the media conglomerates continue to publish more reader content at the expense of professional content, turning previously investigative papers into padded-out vehicles for classified ads. Sure, a lot of great local bloggers will fill the gap to a degree, but without the whole-community focus of the old papers or their sites.

Now I admit this is all a little Reithian (Educate, inform, entertain), and upon the demise of MSM, many of the union’s detractors would be quite happy to take Tebbit’s bicycle and set up their own micro-specialist micro-publishers, fervently hoping to be one of the superstar category killers that makes a living from blogging, rather than one of the considerably greater number of also-rans who has to hold down another job to pay the rent (there will probably be a lot of “New Media Correspondents” to be found at Starbucks from 9-5).

However, I value the quality of coverage that comes from trained and well-connected professionals in a properly resourced newsroom. It’s true that I find a lot of fun in the assorted witterings of the 2.0 commentariat, but I don’t like the idea of a future of nothing but filtering through monomaniac amateurs and opinion masquerading as news, from mini-channels set up to spoon-feed niche audiences rather than educate everyone. Without easily accessible, quality reporting, democratic accountability suffers.

I do agree with Roy and Shane that the industry will be shaken up, and the new landscape will look different from the old in ways we don’t like, as well as ways we do. I don’t see though why the union is wrong to want:

  • to manage this process as much as possible in its impact on members,
  • to highlight where it’s being done for cheapskate rather than professional reasons,
  • and to actively work towards a better outcome for the profession, rather than just taking the red pill and seeing what happens.

It’s not wrong to insist people going through change in our industry be treated by decent HR standards. A lot of people (as Shane in Telegraph Towers will know) are being helped to good redundancy offers and retraining, and are probably pretty grateful for their NUJ cards. In other workplaces that are moving towards convergance, the NUJ has been instrumental in getting staff consulted, helping to thrash out arrangements that will work better in practice, because they’ve been worked out with everyone.

It’s not wrong to condemn management for trying to palm off the expense of modernisation onto the staff, through redundancies, higher workloads and inefficient job-doubling, rather than taking a hit on their profits to invest in their business.

It’s not wrong to lobby to preserve professional standards (as the NUJ are doing today), which will be the only way to a long-term future for the industry. If media owners continue to sacrifice the product to preserve profits, they won’t have much of a business left. Union members have a valid interest in keeping their employers going, for their own financial well being, and for the pride they take in the job. Where we can see a way through, let’s lobby the employers to take it. True, the NUJ is blighted by a very rigid organisational structure, which perfectly fitted the media landscape up til ten years back. Branches for each of the disciplines of the profession (books, broadcasting, papers, PR, photographers etc) sit ill with a world where people seriously have to think about which is the closest to the majority of their work, and are likely to miss other useful info as a result.

And of course, changing this kind of thing takes time (though Neil McIntosh came up with a good list of starters recently), and plays into the hands of those who think all the union wants to do is preserve demarcation lines and the easy life as long as possible, but I don’t think it’s really a reason to knock the union too much. The efforts and money that go through this structure may not be being used as efficiently as they could, but good people are putting in a lot of effort to produce a lot of good work despite the job titles on their voluntary posts. This will all in any case have to change at some point – Possibly sooner rather than later, given the earnestness of the Commission review, which is prompting this controversy anyway!

Anyway, I think I’ll sit down now…

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