Leaving the union

Roy Greenslade, a fixture of British journalism — former newspaper editor, now journalism professor and newspaper columnist and blogger — writes a powerful post today submitting his resignation to the National Union of Journalists there. Posts by Shane Richmond of the Telegraph and me appear to have been the last two straws. Roy writes:

. . . I still believe journalistic skills are essential. I also believe that there is a future for professional journalists – people employed by media outlets whose daily job involves them in reporting and transmitting text, photographic and video content. But I also recognise that the so-called profession of journalism has to adapt to vastly changed circumstances. In effect, every citizen is now a journalist.

Richmond rightly points to the NUJ’s underlying assumption that the net is a threat to journalism when, of course, it is much more a threat to the union itself. Why? Because the union, as with the print unions of old, cannot possibly adapt to meet the revolutionary demands of a new technology.

There is a difference, of course. The skills of compositors and linotype operators were eradicated by computer setting and on-screen composition. Journalistic skills are not entirely wiped out in an online world, but they are eroded and, most importantly, they cannot be confined any longer to an exclusive élite group. Secondly, the union’s internal demarcations – such as reporter-photographer, reporter-sub, reporter-camera operator – are now utterly irrelevant. All of us must be multi-media journos from now on.

Then we come to the preservation of jobs, which has been the union’s 100-year raison d’être. I cannot, in conscience, go on supporting this crucial plank of NUJ policy when it is so obvious that online media outlets will require fewer staff. We are surely moving towards a situation in which relatively small “core” staffs will process material from freelances and/or citizen journalists, bloggers, whatever (and there are many who think this business of “processing” will itself gradually disappear too in an era of what we might call an unmediated media).

But that’s only part of the problem. It is also clear that media outlets will never generate the kind of income enjoyed by printed newspapers: circulation revenue will vanish and advertising revenue will be much smaller than today. There just won’t be the money to afford a large staff. . . .

Holding these views, which are completely divergent from the union’s current policies, means that I should resign from the NUJ. After a membership stretching back 42 years, this is a painful decision. But I think it would be hypocritical to remain inside when I am now so opposed to the union’s central aims.

I do believe, most sincerely, that journalism matters. I also think the act of journalism matters. But the brave new world opened up by the internet makes protectionist organised labour on the lines of the NUJ outdated.

: In the interest of balance, here is a link to a piece Donnacha DeLong of the NUJ wrote as the union’s multimedia commission commenced the survey that resulted in the report that sparked this reaction. Snippet:

Recent technological advances are changing the landscape of the media. This has been predicted for many years, but the past year has seen technological convergence finally take root in all parts of the media in the UK and Ireland. Video on local newspaper websites, broadcasters blogging, press officers with cameras, magazine podcasts.

These developments present huge challenges for the NUJ. The union is separated into sectors for broadcasting, newspapers and agencies, magazines and books, PR, freelance and new media – divisions that are increasingly uncertain and may soon be obsolete. The union needs to change – but how much, and in what ways? . . .

The question is – have the industrial divisions of the union been an obstacle to communication in the union? Journalists in different disciplines have often had a tendency to focus exclusively on things in their own disciplines and ignore what’s happening elsewhere. The NUJ’s structures may only have institutionalised these tendencies. The NUJ is often criticised for resisting technological advances – portrayed unfairly as Luddites by employers who are unwilling to provide adequate training or decent pay. The existence of the union’s New Media Industrial Council shows that, on the contrary, the union is engaged with the new technology sector. . . .

: LATER: Neil McIntosh joins in.

: LATER: Adrian Monck pipes in.

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  • http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/technology/shanerichmond/ Shane Richmond

    Jeff,

    Donnacha has posted the full text of his article ‘Web 2.0 is rubbish’ on his own blog: http://donnachadelong.blogspot.com/2007/10/journalist-article.html

    It was that article that had me tearing my hair out in the first place…

  • http://www.pressthink.org Jay Rosen

    re: Greenslade. Wowzer. Quite a letter.

    The Donnacha piece is a classic in curmudgeon lit, Shane.

    Greenslade’s advice: don’t ignore the curmudgeons. Disassociate from them.

  • Eric Gauvin

    @Shane

    If web 2.0 is so wonderful, why would it make you want to tear your hair out if there’s criticism of it? I think Donnacha makes some very good and valid points. From the moment I heard “web 2.0″ I was skeptical, and I think it will go down in history as a brief fad that did more harm (confusion and hype) than good.

  • http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/technology/shanerichmond/ Shane Richmond

    @Eric

    Criticism I can handle. Badly argued assaults on a straw man version of reality are irritating, particularly from the man who is supposed to represent new media interests within the union.

  • http://www.pressthink.org Jay Rosen

    “Print is not dead, nor even unwell, despite the technophiles who promised us a paperless office 40 years ago.”

    That is almost the perfect newsroom curmudgeon statement. It boasts of a “know nothing” mindset.

    “The problem with Web 2.0 is [...] how it’s seen as replacing traditional media.” This is also a canonical statement in curmudgeon literature.

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