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.

  • “If you want to get really fancy, a guild could become an ad network to help support its members.” Interesting thought…

    NUJ as advertising sales manager?

    I am a member of the NUJ and I must admit that it is struggling to tackle the changes in publishing, especially the speed of change and the rise of small online publications.

    I hope it can offer new opportunities to its members, and those outside, otherwise it faces real challenges when growing membership.

    All the best, Craig

  • Some very thoughtful comment here. Of course, amny smaller unions, during their earlier days, worked like this. And the old Guilds which pre-dated them would almost certainly have recognised this.

    But ultimately you’re probably right to see the guilds and unions plight completely at one with their current employers.

    Shame this. Ordinary workers need supporters, these days, who are very imaginative and can think through the demands of tomorrow.

  • Do not make the mistake of thinking that ‘The Man’ is in the same boat as the people who work for him, Jeff. We still live in a plutocratic oligarchy and the gulf between the few wealthy and the other 99.99% of us is still widening. What’s different now is that ‘The Man’ has become ‘The Board,’ as administered from the boardrooms and the golf courses… We’ve gone from ‘Let them eat CAKE” to “Let them eat CAKE®” … Meet the NEW boss…same as the OLD boss …

    Unions are doomed, and have been for some time, thanks largely to outsourcing. Nobody CARES if local #XXXX can’t get a living wage for its members if Company Y farms the labor out to Singapore. Ah, but we can’t outsource NEWS, right? Wellllll… reporter A flashes his pics and commentary to HQ, who zaps it over to B – AMRITSAR, where, in a PC filled-boiler-room frantic text-drones keystroke copy, with editorial inserts/deletes, into webpage C … meanwhile, Company Y’s stock continues to rise since the overhead charged by boiler-room B collectively amounts to a day’s pay for a single assistant copy editor in Newark…

    gasp … it CAN’T happen HERE… !

    no… mostly because it’s going to happen over THERE …

  • Hmm.. apart from the ad network Jeff, your guild does sound a lot like , doesn’t it? Don’t remember if they required me to show my (former) NUJ card:-) Still, as a freelancer I find Mediabistro a very useful site/guild to be a member of…

  • Excellent response. You reframe their debate. And avoid further curmudgeon bashing. (Not that I agree with that agenda.”

    I like, “Rather than whining about doing new jobs, demand to do new jobs.” And rethink what membership means: just employees?

    And I really like this observation:

    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.

    But instead of “creation” I would say… no longer has a monopoly on the daily practice of journalism.

    In trying to avoid further curmudgeon-bashing you did well. But I still don’t understand that goal. As Buzzmachine blogger, where you have a certain amount of cred with users based on your success in this form, “a blog is a person, talking to you….” and all that.

    So does it help or hurt your blog, does it further or hamper that person, for you to hold in your frustration with newsroom curmudgeons and the legacy media mindset, in favor of more “constructive” things like “how to report?”

    Why not bash the deserving with one hand and sketch alternatives with the other? Rip into the best of curmudgeon performance art, re-frame the rest.

    Where does trust-in- lie? How much of it would be ditched if on “policy” grounds you ditched sentiment this:

    Bring back wooden type. How many of those kvetchers are going to be qualified to act as search or tagging editor … or survive on their own when they’re laid off?

    True, the advice isn’t constructive. But there’s you in it, the Jarvis bargain, so its constructive of trust.

  • Amused

    Alan Rusbridger, the editor of the Guardian, a leading left liberal UK national newspaper that Jeff Jarvis contributes too, received a 14.7% increase in his annual salary from £272,000 to £312,000 plus a £175,000 bonus. This bonus was apparently related to the relaunch of the Guardian using the compact, Berliner format.

    Guardian Media Group chief executive Carolyn McCall got a 9% salary increase to £280,000 plus a £215,000 bonus.

    Bob Phillis, retiring from the GMG board, received a 7% pay rise to £407,000 and a £280,000 bonus.

    At the same time Guardian sales are flat, despite the relaunch, and the Guardian and Observer lost £49.9m. Many Guardian staff got only a 3% pay rise.

    I think ‘The Man’ is doing very well thank you, Jeff, and they operate under very different rules than the rest of us!

  • Jon

    All this stuff about the NUJ reminds me of why I left it a few years ago. I got various things from local and national offices basically telling me that I had to support the Fire Brigades Union in its dispute over pay and modernisation, and that if I didn’t then I obviously wasn’t a good trade unionist. Which is kind of funny, because I thought the role of the press in a free society was to present people with the facts and allow them to make up their own minds.

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  • a refresher on terms:

    A Blog = a website with a forum for public input (many times with multiple threads)
    A Website = a www site full of facts and opinions
    to blog = supply a comment into a Blog
    Blogger = a person who supplys a comment
    Blog Master = in here is Jeff Jarvis and company
    a thread = the line of comments from various bloggers on a topic
    a link = jump to an external Website or Blog

    heres a link to Schoolhouse Rock Conjunction Function

    I love this computer world but it sure is upsetting some business worlds.

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  • One little link in response:

  • Then why we so pissy about nonphotographers taking photographs?

  • Not sure I understand, who’s the “we”? There has been a recent debate about an agreement on an Irish newspaper, but these are issues that concern our members. We’ve got members who are professional camerapersons who have very legitimate concerns about their future. It’s not “pissy” to address that in a report that is designed to reflect the concerns of our members and attempt to provide advice and support to those members. Where we get “pissy” is when journalists are handed a camera (stills or video) and sent out into the field without training or any due consideration of health and safety issues (hugely important for people looking through a lense rather than around themselves), let along any extra pay or a reasonable amount of work time allotted to the extra work required.

    Retraining will be a huge element of that, of course, but so is defending quality journalism. Are you denying that there is such a thing as professional quality photography? When (if? I’m not making any presumptions here) your kids get married, would you prefer their wedding photos to be taken by a professional cameraperson or will you prefer the guests to take random snaps?

    Oh, and another couple of links: (libel insurance) (legal support) (freelance sector)

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  • You’re right to identify that the NUJ is now fighting on two fronts, but The Man is still mighty and, as with the rise of DTP previously, may be tempted to use these new technologies as an excuse for asset stripping. Perhaps the biggest role the NUJ should have is in convincing news organisations that they can’t bank on UGC being free forever, or, as you hint, representing citizen journalists to get a fair deal too (which will have a knock-on effect on employment of full time journos).
    Perhaps the biggest danger is that journalists leave one Man (the news orgs) for another (startups), which isn’t unionised. The biggest long term problem the NUJ has is that its recruitment system is based on being ‘nominated’ by an existing member – small startup and non-MSM outfits are unlikely to have an NUJ member on staff to nominate you.

  • Donnacha,
    The links are, again, impressive. No offense intended but perhaps the mistake is having you as spokesman. For attitude matters. Rather than coming to new photographic equipment and opportunities, you once again come with an attempt to set rules for why people without your certification should not be taking photographs. That’s so damned wasteful of the opportunity. Change is good.

    But many of these journalists will end up working for themselves. And those startups would be hampered if they had to deal with the rule mentality I’m seeing from the unions.

  • Jeff, you seem to have a very strange idea of what trade unions are if you think that defending members is problematic. I’ve already said that we have members whose job it is to take photographs – we need to work with them to help them survive the coming changes.

    It’s nothing to do with “my certification”, it’s to do with basic editorial quality, something professional media should depend on. Simple things like research (for example, googling for NUJ+libel+insurance before suggesting it as a new idea would have been a good idea), knowledge of the law, ability to write clearly and health and safety issues. The risk of being attacked and injured when using a camera, stills or video, in a news situation is very high and it is simply irresponsible to argue that “anyone can do it” without proper training.

    We want training, we want protection of standards – we’re a body that has been influential worldwide in defining and protecting standards for journalists and journalism for a century (for example the Code of Conduct: “We”, who you claim are trying to certify, are those who do the work – we are the professionals.

  • Donnacha,

    You say, “…we need to work with them to help them survive the coming changes.”

    No, you need to work with them to help them exploit and prosper from the changes that are already and have long since been here.

    And who says you are the arbiter of quality just because you are paid, just because you declare you and your members to be the professionals? In the U.S., the trust in professional journalism is falling rapidly. It doesn’t need preservation and protection. It needs change.

    You can find lots of reasons not to do things. You can conjure up all kinds of perils to snapping a shutter. My God, you’ll get attacked just for having a camera. Alert the tourists! They are in peril! OK, fine, stipulated.

    But what I — and many of your members commenting and blogging in the posts buzzing around you — would prefer to hear you talk about is the new opportunities.

    We are in a business and the only way this business of journalism is going to survive — and the work you want to protect along with it — is by embracing and exploiting change rather than trying to protect your members from it.

  • “You can find lots of reasons not to do things. You can conjure up all kinds of perils to snapping a shutter. My God, you’ll get attacked just for having a camera. Alert the tourists! They are in peril! OK, fine, stipulated.”

    You are making light of a very, very serious issue and that’s not appropriate. I said “in a news situation”. Photojournalists and videojournalists are killed every year because, when you’re looking through a lense, you’re not looking around you. Journalists are often attacked in crowd control (or loss thereof) situations, if they’re trying to take pictures without proper training at the same time, they’re less likely to see it coming. Even really bloody simple things like getting too close to a fire, stepping in a hole, walking in front of traffic. The news is a dangerous business and it is truly irresponsible to make light of the need for training and health and safety.

    “We are in a business and the only way this business of journalism is going to survive — and the work you want to protect along with it — is by embracing and exploiting change rather than trying to protect your members from it.”

    Tell you what, let’s agree that, when the report is completed, we send you a copy and see what you think. I honestly feel your perception of what we’re saying is skewed and ill-informed. As I said, you could easily have found out about the training, insurance and legal support the union offers, but you assuming they weren’t on offer from the start. So, we’ll have the report in a few weeks and we’ll send it to you. Then we can discuss the totality of the report, not the previews. Deal?

  • How overdramatic can we get?

    What if a paper hires citizens to go shoot press conferences? Or to take those ridiculous pictures of company headquarters that appear in business sections? Or even shoot sports? You keep focusing on why things shouldn’t happen. Not what could happen.

    And the focus of the conversation around you is no longer that report. It’s what you’re saying. Union 1.0 hates web 2.0.

  • Is it possible that media, all media will lose its luster and fall from favor?
    Books, newspapers, radio, recorded music, tv, web.

    Not in total because we live in such a technical world, but I can see a scenario. Maybe I’m just getting old, and thats what happens.

    Lightning speed info and its hard to imagine human condtition change because of it. Business as usual.

    Maybe its the tide, recorded info suffices, till it doesn’t. Then the newborns get educated, then fill the void. The cycle of business as usual.

  • Amused

    Jeff and Donnacha Delong seem to be talking at entirely cross purposes. Of course unions have to change, and the NUJ is doing that. But it also exists to protect members, and that’s perfectly sensible and needed in today’s world just as in the past. Jeff does not seem to want to engage with unions themselves, but rather hurl cliches at them.

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