The new collective

Shane Richmond of the Telegraph tears apart the “report” from the National Union of Journalists — of which he is a slightly sheepish member — that attacks the means of new media in British news organizations. I mocked it yesterday as “whiny, territorial, ass-covering, protecting-the-priesthood, preservation-instead-of-innovation” and Jay Rosen is egging me on for more.

But I’ve decided that a different tack is in order. For it occurred to me that if you’re a union representing journalists today, you probably don’t know which way is up and who’s the enemy and what you’re fighting for. All the old reflexes and relationships are archaic. Unions are structured to fight The Man but now that Man is no longer all-powerful, requiring the joining together of its workers to balance his might. Now the Man is quivering in his loafers, less powerful, poorer, smaller, unsure where the world is headed. Battling The Man could weaken the only guy who is, if not on your side, at least in the same boat with you. Do you really want to go throwing the deckchairs overboard at a time like this?

The very notion of the collective — the essence of the union — is changed. No longer is it about employees gathering together inside an institution to battle for their share of that institution’s value. Now the collective is more likely to be a gathering of independent agents who may work collaboratively, with or without that institution.

Indeed, some of those independent workers used to be employees and union members, but then they got laid off and decided to try to make a go of it on their own. See the story of Rick Waghorn, made redundant from his newspaper and now covering football on his own. See the similar story of Debbie Galant, who left behind the platform of the New York Times and created hyperlocal pioneer Baristanet. See, also, plenty of people who are starting journalistic endeavors on their own without a history of working for newspapers under union protection: Brian Stelter moved from blog to newsroom. Josh Marshall has a media empire growing. Rafat Ali wanted to be a journalist and is now hiring them.

So what is their relationship with the old institutions, including the union? Through old lenses, you’d say their the competition, the enemy. The old union cant is that they are taking work and jobs away from the professionals. That has been the NUJ’s attitude toward citizen journalists. But what if those citizens are your former members? What then? And in the new economic ecosystem of journalism, the relationship should be collaborative. As Mark Potts said at the Networked Journalism Summit, if you’re going to succeed at being small, you probably need to be part of something big. And the Jarvis corollary: If you’re going to succeed at being big, you need help from many smalls.

So what is a union’s role in that universe? That’s a hard question. I’ll propose a few answers.

I’d say that a union has to make itself valuable by making its members more valuable. That won’t come from sitting back and making demands — for just as the institution no longer has a stranglehold on news and distribution, the staff no longer has a stranglehold on creation. So I’d suggest that the union should make sure its members are trained in every medium and means of newsgathering and storytelling — and don’t just demand that employers train, do the training yourself. Act like a collective, a generous community: Get members to train each other. In the comments under this post, Time Inc.’s guild says it’s pushing training. Well, good. Can’t have enough.

I’d rethink the idea of job descriptions. Unions were built to protect them. Look at that NUJ “report” — it gets pissy about nonphotographers making photographs. Get over it! Look at Flickr. We can all — reporters among us — take photographs. So help them take better photographs. Train them.

Rather than whining about doing new jobs, demand to do new jobs. I content that everyone — everyone — in a newsroom should be trained to make slideshows and videos and podcasts even if they never actually make them, for it opens up their thinking to new ways to tell stories and helps them understand why the world is doing this and perhaps helps them improve the products they’re working on. So train away!

Then I’d rethink what membership means. Is it just employees? Maybe it’s those dreaded independent folks you see as a threat. Why would they become members? Well, you’d better give them something: In the U.S., that would be health insurance. And training. And libel insurance. And networking to get work. You have to make your union valuable to them — by making them more valuable in the marketplace of news and content — and only if they do that, will they join. And once they have, it’s in your interest to improve their work and value. So no longer can you sniff about these damned amateurs trying to do what the professionals you protect now do. Now you’re in this together.

If you want to get really fancy, a guild could become an ad network to help support its members. But that gets mightily complicated, for that puts the union in competition with the institutions with whom it now negotiates. Messy world, this.

And you’d also try to become a catalyst for innovation and invention and the creation of new companies. And you’d try to help make them as successful as possible. You’d see yourself in partnership, not at wawr.

It’s hard to imagine a union thinking this way. But I’ll argue that if they don’t, they’re more quickly doomed that the news organizations they’re still trying to wrestle with.