Posts about union

Where’s the digital union?

In a lighter American equivalent to the union kerfuffle here in the London over the digital future of the news union, Time Magazine TV columnist James Poniewozik notes similar issues affecting both the TV writers’ union, which has voted to strike, and his own magazine, where union members are, incredibly, not required to work on the web (though note the union response in the comments to that post). Says James:

As somebody who gets paid to produce content, i.e., write, I can’t pretend to be unbiased. If content is platform-agnostic in this brave new media world, then money should be platform-agnostic too. (That’s not to say I agree with the WGA in every detail, not being privy to the negotiations, but I hear them on general principle.)

This kind of argument is playing out in many workplaces–mine, for instance. You may notice that you are reading this article not in a print magazine but on an electronic computing box, serviced by an Internet hose. Writers and production staff at Time Inc. are covered by a union, which just finished a drawn-out contract renegotiation. (I’m covered by the union but not a member; Time Inc. is an open shop, meaning membership is optional.) A big point of contention between the union and management has been the fact the website’s editors and production staffs are not covered by the union–although union-covered magazine staff, like me, do work for the websites as well.

The deal the company and union reached: magazine staff (like me) can’t be compelled to work for the websites, and the company will not extend union coverage to the website staff. To me–and, for instance, Jeff Jarvis–it’s a worst-of-both-worlds settlement. Instead of treating the ever-more-important websites as if they were ever more important, the magazine staffers get the right to abstain from working for them, and the company gets to avoid, God forbid, having more unionized employees. . .

His colleague Lisa Takeuchi Cullen, who covers the workplace, chimes in on the Time rule with both background and spot-on perspective:

Huh?! On the one hand, we’re told, in so many words, that our futures as content creators depend upon our ability to master the digital realm. On the other, corporate claims our digital future is still made of ether, and therefore our digital contribution can’t be quantified (and compensated).

Here’s a simple start to what’s likely to become a complicated solution. Why not write up new job descriptions for us? When I was hired as a staff writer at this company 10 years ago, the web was not even mentioned. Today, it’s a large part of my job, mainly by dint of my blog. I embrace my web duties; it’s unquestionably more work than just churning out for the magazine, but I recognize my own and my industry’s future lies here, on this blinking, electronic page. Yet I’m still getting mixed messages. One editor told me I shouldn’t “waste” more than 10 minutes a day on the blog. “The magazine comes first,” the editor told me. “It’s what pays you.”

Fine. So quantifying our web contributions remains a management puzzle, perhaps one for those high-priced McKinsey drones to figure out. But legitimize our work online by redefining our jobs. We’re all web writers now.

Yes, but avoiding new job descriptions is the goal of some in this and sidestepping the issues raised by them is the goal of others — when everyone’s goal should be to grab these new opportunities and figure them out.

In olde London

Some more followup to the National Union of Journalists row brought on when a member of the National Union of Curmudgeons rubbished web 2.0 and a chicken-little commission of the NUJ tried to close the door on change:

Roy Greenslade gave us his considered response to comments on his decision to quit the union. He discusses an anonymous journalist grappling with being stuck between the union and the future and says:

Despite his continuing sympathies for colleagues, and his lingering desire to remain faithful to the NUJ, he will realise that the demands of a paper gradually moving from print to screen are inimical to those of a union that, despite its pro-digital rhetoric, is committed only to preserving outdated demarcation lines, defying the need for flexibility and struggling to fend off staff cuts that, in fairness, will be necessary.

How could I possibly remain a union member when I now hold such views? To advocate that we need fewer jobs is anathema to the union. That’s why I say it would be hypocritical for me to go on being a member. Nor could I, as some commenters suggest, fight for that position within the union. It would be a laughable option. . . . I cannot, in all conscience, remain within a union I now regard, albeit reluctantly, as reactionary. The digital revolution is here and I am digital revolutionary.

Neil McIntosh shoots the NUJ’s red herring in a barrel.

Donnacha DeLong, said fishmonger, appeared on BBC Five Live’s Pods and Blogs show.

And Suw Charman and Kevin Anderson take a different tack, defending web 2.0 and its benefits.

The mainstream media is not leading the charge to the internet, it is following along behind its audience, laggardly, sullenly and defensively. Many journalists have spent ten years dismissing the internet as a fad and an inferior medium. They are equally dismissive of Web 2.0 without even knowing what it means. DeLong says on the NUJ New Media’s blog, “So there we go – a nice big debate about the issues”, but he has done nothing to move the debate forward and nothing to help of inform NUJ members. Instead, he has engaged in more scare-mongering about the threat of the internet and simplistically focused on perceived, but illusory, dangers to journalism.

Both of us embraced the internet because of the opportunities it presents. It’s the world’s greatest story-telling medium, bringing together the strengths of text, audio, video and interaction. The internet as a communications tool can help journalists tap sources like never before, making their stories richer and more balanced. Why wouldn’t journalists take advantage of the internet?

Yes, the job is changing, and we as journalists need to change with it. The internet may be posing a threat to the business model that support journalism, and it’s understandable that this causes anxiety. But misrepresenting the reality of that change won’t make it go away.

Suw and Kevin are reluctant to feed the troll and though Jay Rosen cheers them on, I understand their hesitation. It’s a mistake, I think, to let the curmudgeons set the agenda and, for that matter, get the attention. It doesn’t move us forward. And I really don’t care if they are left behind. Andrew Keen made suckers of us all when he staged “debates” around teh wrold to promote his awful book and for awhile, I was such a sucker. Now DeLong thinks that he has caused useful debate. But Suw and Kevin are right: He did no such thing.

So I’m looking forward to Neil‘s next post with his suggestions for his union. I leave it to the members whether that is worth the trouble. But I do think that looking forward with tangible strategies for change — best practices, lessons learned — is the only debate worth having.

: MOMENTS LATER: Here is Neil’s five-part prescription for the NUJ. He suggests fixing the union’s publication and web site (irony often noted), creating a place and even a conference for debate, becoming more transparent, and this:

5. Accept muscle has been replaced by knowledge

This final bit is inspired by Jeff Jarvis’s idea of the new collective, posted last week. It’s also the most testing bit for a union, because it can’t be just a token effort.

Here’s the thing: once, a union’s members gained their power only through collective (industrial) action. Today, union members find it both harder to strike legally, and harder to say yes in a strike ballot. That’s led to a diminishing of the power of trade unions, even if diehards refuse to accept the glory days are gone.

It would be better for all if you realised the new power comes through circulating knowledge through the ranks – not the kind of badly filtered, politically tainted, change-is-bad “knowledge” we’ve seen so far, but real information about what the hell’s going on.

I think the problem is this: jsut as we as a profession and industry must learn how to open up, we still talk about it in closed organizations and meetings. I heard the other day from someone who complained about the Online News Association conference in Toronto. I can’t judge the conference since I was thwarted from getting there. But I did find the agenda to be weak tea and I’ve long been troubled that it is (irony noted) an echo chamber.

The essential mistake is organizing around organiztaions. We need to organize around interests, skills, experience. Look to the example of the Facebook hackathons: Interested developers organize themselves and get together to share the best practices and frustrations and needs and ideas, generously, openly. They don’t join a union or an association or work for a company. They just learn from each other.

That is the new collective.

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.