Coming together or falling apart: unions & media convergence
|G.Herman, B.Trench and S.Walker|
Gary Herman, Labour Telematics Centre; Brian Trench, Dublin City University; Steve Walker, Leeds Metropolitan University.
(Paper presented to "Political Economy of Convergence" colloquium, University of Westminster, September 6-8 1999.)
This paper draws on the experience of Jet Pilot, a European Commission-funded project concluded in 1999, and an earlier project, Musenet, concluded in 1998. Both of these involved the International Federation of Journalists and media and journalist unions in the UK, Ireland and Germany, and addressed organisational and training issues emerging from media convergence and the growth of ‘online journalism’.
These projects examined changes in the role of journalists and of media unions resulting from the development of digital media and the widespread acceptance of ‘the information society paradigm’, which assumes social transformation through the emergence of an ‘information economy’ based on technological convergence. In this perspective, the traditional role of the journalist as a social mediator is challenged by the proliferation of information sources and services. At the same time, media unions are confronted by the threat of large-scale restructuring as a result of increased competition, the emergence of new players, and the spread of new forms of production within the media.
The commoditisation of information and the development of online, interactive media challenge the very nature of information and the journalist’s relationship to its production (or discovery) and dissemination. This is expressed in part in the conflict between ‘libertarian’ and ‘regulation-oriented’ tendencies, between those who believe ‘information wants to be free’ and those who believe ‘information needs to be organised’. This conflict is most visible in debates about censorship, privacy and market regulation, but it is also evident in more complex forms in the responses of media unions to the challenges of media convergence.
The traditional values of journalism, of which journalist unions often see themselves as guarantors, are under pressure in the more traditional print and broadcast media, and their transfer to the newer, online media is by no means assured. There is a debate about the most appropriate mechanism for such a transfer and, indeed, whether such transfer is necessary. This paper reflects on the conditions for, and implications of, the effective implantation of traditional journalism values in the newer media. In particular it looks at the development of a more assertive stance by some media professionals and media unions towards the process of technological change and in favour of a training-led approach to professionalisation of online journalism.
Aspects of this changing landscape are discussed under three broad categories: media convergence and new media, the ways in which the development of new media are affecting the practice of journalism (looking in particular at the case of Web-based news publications) and the responses to new media of journalists’ unions.
Media convergence and the new media: technological or economic change?
Convergence is often taken as axiomatic in discussion about the implications and impact of new media. The assumption is widely held that the use of data communication technologies to convey printable or playable content (web pages and digital images, video, and audio) is in itself radically recasting the material, economic, political, and cultural formations of our society, most notably, in this context, media professional occupations.
The justification for this assumption is that convergence challenges conventional categories almost by definition: where once there were distinct communications media, there is now a blur of intermingling, fast-moving communications acts, from TV broadcast, to Web site, to video, to book, newspaper story or magazine article.
The Musenet project (a two-year project, ending in 1998, intended to raise the awareness of media unions regarding the developments within the information society) at first identified three forms of convergence which appeared to be of interest: technological convergence; economic or commercial convergence; trade union (or occupational/social) convergence. For the purposes of the project’s initial activities, these were seen as related but not co-extensive; technological convergence was presumed to be the material basis of the other two forms of convergence. This was not intended as a strictly deterministic approach - for example, technological convergence made it possible for telecommunications operators to become media enterprises but did not make it inevitable. In the model, technological convergence may have had historic causes in its own right, but economic and occupational convergence were seen essentially as responses (not necessarily consciously mediated) to technological change.
To many enthusiastic advocates of convergence and the information society, this is a popular view because it locates the source of change within a clearly identifiable set of material circumstances - the development of digital electronics and data communications - with well-understood origins and a well-documented history. It also has the superficial attraction of non-relativism; if it is anything, technological convergence is an objective and universal phenomenon.
The Musenet project demonstrated that technological convergence has become a strategic issue for a number of national trade unions in the media and related areas. Some, notably in the telecommunications sector, believe that it can offer new job opportunities for their members. Others, notably in the broadcast sector, see technological convergence as a threat to their established interests. These attitudes generally reproduce the views of companies operating within the areas affected by convergent technologies, although the identification of interests that sometimes follows from independent assessments of threats and opportunities is usually naive.
It does not follow that an opportunity for corporate expansion automatically entails an increase in employment opportunities and job security. One secondary effect of new technologies is that they do not, as a rule, produce large-scale employment (compare WorldCom with a conventional telecommunications utility, or a Web newspaper with its print equivalent); another is that they are frequently used to facilitate outsourcing, so-called ‘flexible employment’, and job displacement.
The European Commission’s Green Paper on Convergence (CEC, 1997) - taking its lead from the Bangemann report and the Delors White Paper - saw technological convergence as producing new jobs, new means of expression, new forms of education and new ways to deliver social welfare. Businesses, users and governments around the world were embracing the new information revolution, and Europe should not be left behind. The Green Paper stated:
"The global nature of communications platforms today, in particular, the Internet are providing a key which will open the door to the further integration of the world economy. This will open opportunities and challenges not only for the European Union, but also for our neighbours in Central and Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, and more broadly, in the developing world. At the same time, the low cost of establishing a presence on the World Wide Web, is making it possible both for businesses of all sizes to develop a regional and global reach, and for consumers to benefit from the wider choice of goods and services on offer. Globalisation will therefore be key theme in future developments, as changes in Europe are mirrored by developments all over the World."
But technological convergence (that is, "the global nature of communications platforms today") is not itself the driver of change, it merely facilitates the opening of new markets. The significance of technological convergence derives from its association with liberalisation and deregulation in national and international markets. Without this association, technological convergence would hardly be talked about.
Technological convergence has reduced some economic barriers to entry in newly liberalised markets, by allowing enterprises to invest in products or services with comparatively little risk. This is the case with online newspapers, which require fractions of the money it costs to produce and distribute their print or broadcast equivalents.
However, liberalisation (with ‘a light touch’) remains top of the European agenda, during the current review of telecommunications policy, despite the increasingly apparent emergence of a small number of US-dominated media-communications-IT conglomerates pursuing a global market in lowest-common-denominator information and entertainment. The received wisdom has become that regulation is a barrier to market entry, rather than a framework for supporting local, national, and regional industry, much less to underpin access, public service, and ethical or quality standards.
The EC Green Paper, already cited, states: "In the new global environment the way in which networks and services are regulated in different regions has the potential to impact substantially on investment in those regions. Excessive or inadequate regulation in one region could result in a migration of economic activity elsewhere, with adverse consequences on the development of the Information Society in the former region."
The assumption that a new global environment exists has become the basis on which regulation is left to the World Trade Organisation and the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (or its successor). "The global nature of the platform and the difficulty of exercising control within a given Member State are leading to solutions which draw on self-regulatory practices by industry rather than on formal regulation," according to the Green Paper. But the idea of a single, homogenous, global environment (underpinned by the axiom of technological convergence) is problematic. While technological convergence is real, it is also not a force of nature, equal and equally unavoidable everywhere. Rather, it is mediated by local conditions.
These dimensions of market liberalisation and ‘globalisation’ were under-represented in both the Musenet and Jet Pilot projects; their significance becomes clearer in reflecting on the experiences of those projects. This under-representation was not just a question of cultural diversity and multilingualism (although these were factors) but also of the assumption we made that technological convergence was the prime factor in the developments we sought to track and influence. The responses of individuals, unions, and other organisations involved in the projects were necessarily heavily dependent on their national experiences. As demonstrated during a Jet Pilot evaluation workshop in Brussels involving European Federation of Journalists representatives (mostly working journalists) from across Europe, these responses focused on concerns such as the market conditions in each country rather than on “technological convergence” in the abstract.
Convergence is also playing itself out in other ways. In the slogan of Web enthusiasts, "content is king", the content is widely taken to be what journalists recognise and produce as news. The promise of frequent change is what keeps users returning to a Web site and the way to get most change by volume and by value into a Web site is to add news to it. This is entirely new and entirely unpredicted. While it was easy to predict the growth in the number of online newspapers (from under 400 in 1994 to over 4,000 last year) the development of a global form of news makes no real sense. The popular model for online news used to be news tailored to the individual consumer as the ‘Daily Me’ (Fidler, 1994). But the influence of a ‘Daily Me’ is dead and looks like it may be replaced by the Daily Everybody - a pot-pourri of celebrity stories, disasters, stock market prices, sports results and movie tie-ins.
Consequently, it may be that the new media demand new forms of journalism, perhaps even a journalism which is unrecognisable from familiar practice. It may, on the one hand, be a journalism dominated by ‘repurposing’ of material generated in the first instance for other, ‘mature’ media, and driven exclusively by news management teams, spin doctors, and PR companies. It may, on the other hand, take the form of muck-raking and scandal sheets, in the manner or the notorious Drudge Report, or it may be a more reflexive journalism which gives social expression to the technical capacity for interactivity which the Internet medium affords. None of these things is certain, but each is possible. The urgency of any response to these possibilities will be influenced by the extent to which new media have permeated the markets served by journalism. This is one of the reasons why there is so much more concern about the nature of digital media in the US than in Europe, but it is not a reason for Europeans to sit idly by.
Addressing the issue of ‘Securing public interest objectives in the light of convergence’, for example, the Green Paper asks only two-and-a-bit questions: does convergence support or challenge the way in which public interest objectives are achieved, should these objectives ‘be more clearly identified’ and, where the objectives translate into particular obligations - such as universal service in telecommunications or public service in broadcasting - should these obligations be placed on ‘a wider group of actors’?
These questions rather limit the debate to two possible scenarios: leave things as they are, or replace statutory regulation with self-regulation. This is indicative of the problem confronting journalists (at least, European journalists) who wish to see public service and campaigning journalism survive: there is no political will to challenge the hegemony of the market. And there is no political will (in the context of journalism, at least) because the rhetoric of convergence presents us with an immutable facade which hides economic reality.
New media: implications for journalists
Discussions of the implications for journalists and journalism of the development of new Internet-based information services and of online news publications cover a wide range, from predictions of the end of journalism to expressions of hope for its salvation or rebirth. From both ends of that spectrum, however, online journalism is taken to represent a ‘paradigm shift’ from previously existing journalism, or, in the words of one author on the subject, a challenge to the ‘vertical’ model of journalism arising from the development of ‘horizontal’ means of mass communication (Bardoel, 1996).
In considering the implications of media convergence for journalists, as professionals and as employees, the Jet Pilot project focused on Web-based news services. Here, several trends were identified affecting the organisation and role of journalists, and tending towards a redefinition of several sets of relations, e.g. among different categories and levels of journalists, between journalists and others working in media organisations, and between producers and consumers of news.
In what might be seen as a techno-utopian perspective, the interactivity between information producer and consumer facilitated by Internet technologies provides the basis for a socially more responsive journalism with application across all media. In a more traditional trade union perspective, it is feared that an organisational change permitted in one part of a diversified enterprise or of an industry sector, will inevitably be generalised to the wider organisation or sector.
The diversification by established news organisations into online publishing, as it has taken place to date, indicates that the latter perspective has the more direct bearing on journalists’ experience. That diversification has been led mainly by commercial considerations and managed by technical specialists. Journalists, including editors, have been absent or marginal in the process. The business motives for this diversification have not always been clear. As is by now notorious, few Web publications are paying their way much less making profits. Five years after the Web began to become the primary access route to the Internet and to be harnessed for commercial purposes, the economics of Web publishing remain mysterious (Pavlik, 1998).
The decision-making processes governing the move to online publishing have been different from those applied in earlier major new developments. This may both reflect and contribute to the marginalisation of journalist professionals in media enterprises generally. It is clearly a critical factor in understanding how Web-based news services have evolved alongside newspapers or radio or television services within combined organisations, that the online divisions tend not to be integrated into the broader editorial decision-making and news-gathering structures. There are exceptions to this, where, for example, a conscious decision has been taken to ensure that the ‘brand’ of the existing medium and the trust it has won are transferred to the new venture, and appointments of senior personnel and organisational structures have been designed to achieve that.
More typically, however, journalists working in the ‘mature’ media divisions of larger news organisations with online publishing divisions tend to have little knowledge of or control over how the material they produce for publication in a newspaper or broadcast on radio or television is reprocessed for publication online. Decisions on shortening, rewriting, or ‘enhancing’, e.g. through addition of linked multimedia elements, reports recycled in digital form from the editorial systems of the print or broadcast services may be taken quite independently, by staff not involved in the original selection, information-gathering and editing processes. On the other hand, staff of German online news publications have stated that they wanted to modify the supplied material (from the print editions) but did not have the right to do so (Neuberger et al., 1998).
Compared to the editorial staff of established news media, the staffs of Web-based news services are younger on average, recruited mainly for their technical and graphic skills. Their capacity to exercise editorial judgement, to report accurately or to write concisely and elegantly are rarely a consideration (Houston, 1999). Where journalists are redeployed from established media to the online editions of their organisations, they tend not to be among the more senior or experienced of those journalists. The cited study of online editions of German newspapers showed that half of those working for these publications had worked for less than one year in newspapers and that over two-thirds were 35 years old or less (Neuberger et al., 1998).
Alongside the well-developed professional model of the newspaper, magazine or broadcast journalist, the online journalist presents a weakly defined profile. This is reflected in the variety of titles used, e.g. Web Producer, Content Provider, Production Associate, etc. Demarcations between editorial and commercial responsibilities and duties are much less pronounced in Web-based news services than in longer-established newsrooms. Advertisements and online sales promotions are an integral and prominent part of Web page design on online news sites and may be handled by the same staff who process editorial material, something which typically does not happen in all but the smallest print or broadcast organisations.
The weak presence in online news media of established journalists and of their traditional organisations may be attributed, at least in part, to the generally passive or reactive role which those organisations have played in periods of rapid technological change. This was seen already in Britain and Ireland during the 1980s, when most of the major news organisations moved to computer-based editorial systems, a move which increased dramatically the technical workload of many journalists and, consequently, diverted their attention from the more purely editorial aspects of their work.
In this current phase of technological change within the media, journalists and their organisations have been slow to see the possibility or need to control how the newer technologies are implemented, much less to see the potential of these technologies for innovative and possibly richer forms of journalism. This weak presence of established journalists and of their organisations in the newer media also offers a partial explanation for some of the journalistic weaknesses found in those media which we summarise in the following paragraphs.
News content published in the newer media is derivative to a much higher degree than is usual in established media. It may be recycled from material produced primarily for publication in directly linked print or broadcast media. It may be displayed through links to the Web sites of other media organisations. It may be supplied by established news agencies (e.g. Associated Press, Reuter, etc.). It may be based entirely, or very largely, on press releases. News organisations set up specifically to publish on the WorldWide Web also rely heavily on supplied material; their editorial staff’s work is generally restricted to repackaging previously existing news stories or publicity material. Web publications of many established media organisations comprise little more than "shovelware", i.e. the raw text of (usually selected) news reports produced for conventional media minimally reformatted for publication on the Web and surrounded by advertisements or online sales promotions.
Web-based news services most committed to developing their presence and their profile increasingly seek to do so through the rapidity of their response to news developments. This pressure increases the tendency to rely on news agency material and reduces the time to apply the traditional journalist checks of accuracy and authenticity, where the inclination to do this exists.
Many Web-specific publications that began with a commitment to production of multi-layered features using multiple formats have retreated from that commitment. They have done this partly in view of the labour and cost involved, and partly in response to the discovery, through automated tracking of Web site usage, that users tended not to spend the time on news sites needed to dig down into explanations. Users appeared more interested in frequently updated headlines and quick summaries of news. A former staff reporter with the online service of Fox News considers Web journalism is becoming "a machine moving at the speed of the wires [news agencies], in terms of content, and in the direction of television, in terms of form" (Houston, 1999).
The scope which hypertextuality and the unlimited ‘news hole’ of the WorldWide Web offer for adding depth and context to news reports has been little exploited in online news services. Where previously existing material is ‘enhanced’ for Web publication through the addition of links, the relevance of those links is often unclear. Only in a small minority of cases, is the purpose of the links explained, i.e. the ‘reader’ is given guidance as to what to expect and why it might be worth making the jump, and the links are made directly to the appropriate level of the external site. (Journalists taking part in the training workshops of the Jet Pilot project acknowledged both the potential to add value to news reports by inserting appropriate links and the time and labour needed to ensure such links were fully relevant. They characterised this as journalists’ work, requiring maturity and editorial experience to be done well.)
The potential use of interactive features of the WorldWide Web for strengthening relations with the readers, e.g. through publication of readers’ comments alongside the news organisation’s own reports, or through direct e-mail feedback to the writers and editors, has been realised on only a minority of Web-based news sites. Even where there is no very direct incitement to site users to send messages directly to the editorial staff, journalists working on online publications report that they may spend an hour or more each day dealing with e-mail. In one perspective, this is an additional workload for which financial compensation should be given; in another perspective, this is a means to find out about readers’ interests and concerns in a way that might usefully inform future reporting. Jon Katz, a columnist with the Web publication, HotWired, regularly receives up to 100 e-mail messages a day; he considers reading them and answering them as part of his work on the column (King, 1998).
Reflecting the tendencies towards greater speed of publication mentioned above, the scope which the hyperlink and interactive features of the WorldWide Web offer for new forms of story-telling, allowing the reader to make their own path through the material, has been much discussed but little practised. The Fox News reporter cited above suggests that "experiments in story-telling are on an indefinite hiatus" (Houston, 1999).
Arising from some of the characteristics of online media already identified, a set of ethical considerations arise which have been the cue, in at least one significant case, for the wholesale revision of a professional code. The Society of Professional Journalists, in the United States, rewrote its code "motivated in part by a sense that new technologies for gathering and distributing information were subtly changing the nature of doing journalism" (Black, 1998). Among European journalists and their unions the stronger view appears to be that existing professional and ethical codes continue to serve well in the new environment, but that the standards they embody need more active proclamation among new and prospective recruits.
Beyond the specifics of professional codes, some new media enthusiasts, notably in the United States, see digital media as a platform for new journalism ethic, which is both more responsive to readers’ interests and contributions (Talbot, 1997; Pavlik, 1998). Prefigurations of such a new journalism can be seen on some Web news sites and in some specialist Web-specific publications. American newspapers often enjoying a monopoly in their regional markets or specialist publications with a clearer sense of their readership profile have been more open to experimenting on their Web sites with readers’ forums and other interactive features.
Media convergence: some implications for journalist and media unions
As economic globalisation has developed over the last two decades, trade unions generally have been placed under great pressure. Indicators such as levels of union membership and days lost through industrial action have fallen significantly in most countries, (though there is some evidence that this fall may be ‘bottoming out’). While industrial relations environments vary widely across Europe and North America, a number of common factors can be been identified as underpinning these developments. These include changing composition of the workforce (particularly the increased involvement of women), changes in work organisation, technological change, widespread anti-union legislation, decentralisation (or at least, relocation) of bargaining to the firm (rather than sectoral or national levels) and the growth of increasingly competitive global markets in many areas (see, for example, Olney, 1996). These can be associated with the emergence of new forms of capitalist development from a complex of economic, social and technological developments, perhaps as an ‘informational’ mode of development (Castells, 1996).
Unions in the media sectors have been affected by all of these trends. In the UK, anti-union legislation and employer hostility resulted in a number of major industrial disputes during the 1980s. Journalists appear to have been particularly prone to casualisation with the rapid growth of ‘outsourcing’ from freelance journalists, frequently using electronic mail and related technologies to support teleworking. However, for journalists’ unions, the setting is more specifically characterised by the interplay of the convergence of media technologies, the changing patterns of media ownership and the market-driven commoditisation of information and news. Examples of how these are being played out in the real practice of journalists’ work for the Web have been discussed in the preceding part of this paper.
Many new entrant companies are formed by, and employ, workers from more ‘creative’ or technical rather than journalistic backgrounds. It appears that not only are many of these employers opposed to settlement of key issues such as pay and working hours through collective bargaining, but so also are a large majority of workers (including secretarial and support staff as well as more skilled or professional workers). Leisink has proposed that unions need to adapt to the more individualistic cultures of these workers, and accept the impracticality of bargaining either in specific ‘sub-sectors’ (given the fluidity of these and the general lack of employer bodies capable of negotiating collectively) or companies (given the high proportion of small and medium-sized enterprises). Unions should, instead, adopt a more modular, ‘à la carte’ model in which basic conditions are specified across all media, though without attempting to specify detailed conditions across the board. These can then be agreed more ‘locally’ depending on the culture and requirements of specific companies and sub-sectors. Such an approach has been developed in the Dutch print industries (Leisink, 1998).
As in other sectors (Olney, 1996), changing skill requirements and the associated training needs are blurring the distinction between workers traditionally organised by different unions. Journalists are increasingly required to develop technical skills and, perhaps more significantly, many people without a background or training in journalism are carrying out journalistic functions. The potential for demarcation disputes between journalist and other media unions is clear.
From the perspective of journalist unions, any media-wide approach would at least require close collaboration with other media unions. Many other media unions have merged (for example, creating BECTU in the UK). At an international level, the organisation of trade union bodies is increasingly following the logic of industrial convergence, with the agreement this year of the internationals representing graphical, media and entertainment, telecommunications and general office workers to merge to create a single body, the ‘Union Network International’.
In addition to ‘traditional’ trade union issues such as pay and conditions, journalist unions have historically been concerned with promoting ethical and professional standards such as accuracy and fairness. They are generally concerned with the practice of journalism as a profession and recognition of its wider social and cultural role, including the concerns of quality in journalistic output.
Increasingly, these standards are coming under pressure in existing media companies from intensified competition for advertising revenue and sales. In new media entrant companies many staff involved in journalistic activities have none of the background in the professional and ethical culture of journalism which at least gives some basis to resist such pressures. In many European countries, journalist unions have their own Codes of Conduct (for example, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) in Britain and Ireland). In some countries journalist unions have been involved in setting professional standards in association with employers (for example, Sweden and Norway) and/or through press councils created jointly with employers (for example, Germany and Austria) (Bertrand, 1998).
In some cases, unions have debated whether existing standards are adequate to deal with particular issues posed by new media. The need for these standards to be conserved and possibly extended in the convergent media is seen as important not simply for journalists, but for the wider health of democracy (White , 1998). These concerns are perhaps closer to those traditionally associated with professional bodies rather than unions.
Similarly, there is also widespread concern about intellectual property and the control of the outputs of journalists’ work. This has become increasingly important for many journalists as employers seek to take ownership of the rights to journalists’ work both as published in its ‘primary medium’ and as re-presented, for example, in electronic archive databases and in Web publications. On one level, this might be seen simply as typical trade union concern over conditions of employment. However, as Huws (1999) has pointed out, knowledge workers’ (such as journalists’) attempts to maintain this control over their produce places them in an ambiguous situation. Where workers in ‘material’ sectors (such as factory workers) long since lost the right to control the product of their labour, many knowledge workers continue to resist this alienation from their work and maintain control over the future use of their work.
These latter two factors differentiate journalist unions from many others, strengthening the ‘guild’ dimension of their union identity (Hyman, 1999). This may make their participation in broader industrial or company types of unionism more complex and explain why many journalists unions remain, to date, outside the mergers of national and media and related unions mentioned above.
A further aspect of the broader processes of economic globalisation, and industrial and technological convergence is the level at which unions need to organise. Many media conglomerates are transnational or global companies. Similarly, intergovernmental bodies (EU, WTO, WIPO) are playing important roles in influencing the shape of emerging media industries. Unions need to be able to respond in both of these areas at international level. An important dimension of the Jet Pilot project is precisely that it has sought to address some of the issues of journalist training at a European level.
Jet Pilot: identifying new media training needs
The Jet Pilot project involved journalist unions, journalism trainers and specialists in information and communication technologies. It set out to establish journalists’ training needs as a consequence of the development of digital media. In particular, it sought to examine how and whether higher professional standards might be promoted in the new media, the need for ethically-oriented professional training and the means of providing such training. From the perspective of the participating unions, and the European Federation of Journalists, which managed the project, the last question focused on the unions’ role as a training provider.
The 18-month project included surveys of affiliates of the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), study of policy documentation, training workshops in Ireland, Britain and Germany, and discussions with members of the EFJ executive. From the many possible topics that presented themselves for consideration in the workshops, writing and editing of news for Web publication was selected for primary attention. Thus, questions of image manipulation and of copyright protection, which have exercised journalist unions internationally, were not discussed in detail.
Participants represented a mix of those directly employed in online media, those with positions of responsibility in editorial management and in their unions, and recent entrants to the profession. Across this spectrum, and across the national-cultural boundaries, there was a consensus that current, mainly technical, training was inadequate to deal with the issues arising for journalists from the development of online news media. There was widely expressed concern that many of those performing editorial tasks on Web news publications had received little or no editorial training. The fear was also expressed by some participants and respondents that journalists had lost - or never gained - the initiative in this new sector.
Members of the National Union of Journalists (Britain and Ireland) who participated in workshops in Dublin and Manchester responded comprehensively to a short questionnaire based on some of the issues raised in discussion. Several of them emphasised that this discussion had raised questions whose urgency and relevance they recognised but which were new to them. One participant responded to a question on new training needs as follows: "Journalists need training in Web authoring so that they are aware of the benefits of hypertext and multimedia … This training should be available in some form for all journalists, since the assumption should be that all copy could end up on the Web." Another participant said: "If the NUJ does not become involved in providing such training, then news publishing will slip away from the hands of professional journalists into the hands of technicians. The NUJ could offer courses in Internet-aided research and writing and designing for the Internet with an emphasis on ethics."
Participants were also asked to reflect on wider strategic questions facing their union as a result of the development of digital media. A participant stated: "A likely impact of digital media is that increasingly non-journalists will become content creators/providers; indeed this has been happening for many years in the non-digital media. I welcome the fact that the NUJ has widened its criteria for membership to include web designers, and indeed anyone involved in the production of digital media." Another said: "Strategic issues for the union include recruitment - i.e. the need to ensure the union reaches people processing information in different ways for digital media, who probably don’t themselves think of their work as ‘journalism’ but who are nevertheless using recognisably editorial and journalistic skills."
Reflecting both the lack of a unitary entry and career path in journalism and the unformed state of online journalism, not all Jet Pilot participants were certain that the responsibility for providing a more firmly professionally and ethically oriented training lay with the unions. Similar uncertainty affects UK journalism education institutes, according to one study: "Given the predisposition of the industries that fund the training bodies simply to ‘repurpose’ content for the web, it is understandable why accrediting bodies, with long experience in journalism training, are prepared to let the industries take the lead and to adapt more radically only when industry signals its intentions more clearly" (Bromley et al, 1998)
The authors of that study observe that journalism education is largely locked into medium-centred compartments, making it difficult to adapt to the multiskilling and convergence inherent in what they refer to as Web journalism. They express the resulting disjunction in stark terms: "The certainties of existing postgraduate education are applied to the chaos of new forms."
Jet Pilot also sought to address the issues of journalists’ training requirements at an international (European) level, which highlighted both substantive and practical obstacles. The training activities were validated in three countries for journalists in three unions (one union in two countries, two unions in one country). While the training-led approach has been successful in this context, it may not be simply generalised. Discussions among union representatives from ten European countries at an evaluation meeting, referred to previously, indicated a diverse picture of training need. Three clusters of national situations could be identified.
Representatives from Finland, Sweden and perhaps Austria indicated that the type of professional training covered in Jet Pilot was not a priority since use of the technologies by journalists was already widespread and/or more developed training was already in place in association with employers. Representatives from Spain, Italy, Cyprus and France reported that this style of training was not a priority because new media were not having a significant impact on journalists. A third cluster might be identified as comprising Ireland, the UK and Germany, where the Jet Pilot approach of training-led professionalisation is well suited to the current media accountability and industrial relations situations.
It is reasonable to expect that as new media spread the demand for this kind of approach may grow in those countries where it is currently weak. This does not necessarily mean that there will be convergence on a single model for the role of new media or on a single model for the role of the journalist within the new media. Significant differences will persist, inter alia reflecting the very cultural diversity which many of the project’s participants have seen as desirable. It is likely, however, these types of initiative will continue to need to be significantly ‘contextualised’ for delivery in different countries, or to focus more explicitly on the specifically international issues (e.g. increasing global concentration of media ownership, EU regulation, and training regimes in particular transnational media companies).
This paper has looked at three aspects of media convergence and journalists’ unions: the context of convergence, the changes in journalists’ working practice associated with the spread of one such medium (Web-based news publications) and possible issues confronting journalist unions. In respect of each of these aspects, our principal conclusions are as follows:
1) Technological convergence is a less important factor in the restructuring of journalism than liberalisation, deregulation and the hegemony of the market
2) Journalistic practice in on-line media is subjected to market-driven changes, despite the potential of these media to create a new paradigm for news ‘delivery’
3) Media and communications unions see convergence as primarily economic but while some have responded with merger on an international level, journalism unions identify an advantage in maintaining a privileged position for their members as ‘content providers’
Some journalist unions see the inculcation of professional values and standards as the key to their survival (effectively as a means of ring-fencing journalistic jobs). For this strategy to work, there has to be a widespread perception that convergence is devaluing journalism - a perception which can be fostered by a more comprehensive approach to training for entrants to new media careers (whether traditional journalists or new ‘content providers’). Since the publishing industry does not appear to be doing this as a whole (with some exceptions, often in the US, but also among those organisations with a brand sensibility, such as the BBC), the responsibility falls to unions and training institutions.
Strengthening professional ethics within journalism does not need to be purely defensive if there is a dialogue between convergent media resulting in cross-fertilisation of ideas. We have explored in Jet Pilot how on-line publications can be enhanced by the application of journalism values in forms appropriate to the new media, and how this process can influence the defence and necessary re-definition of such values generally.
Media unions may find increased pressure to collaborate and even merge.
This pressure may not be easily compatible with protection of the professional status and intellectual property rights of journalists, and may facilitate the ‘industrialisation’ of journalism. These circumstances are stimulating a reappraisal of the social role and occupational practice of journalists, not least by journalists themselves, but also by their unions and professional associations and by those politicians who see information as more than an economic entity.
New approaches need to be taken towards the inculcation of professional and ethical values within convergent media. Media unions can and must play the lead role in devising these approaches.
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