The Journalist magazine finally arrived at Tosh Towers, and its convergence coverage was broadly as bad as expected. Those expectations were already low thanks to the vigorous fiskings provided by the Telegraph’s Shane Richmond and, yesterday, Mr and Mrs Strange Attractor.
I’d actually say this edition’s bout wasn’t quite at silly as the “Witness Contributor” debacle of last year, but then familiarity with the union’s stance on The Future blunts its ability to shock.
There’s been plenty of debate about the purpose of the NUJ in new media, prompted largely by Roy Greenslade’s decision to leave the union. He wins pickout quote of the week award for his parting shot yesterday, in The NUJ and me: a considered response:
“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.”
Roy perfectly summed up the conundrum for anyone who thinks the union’s views on new media are ill-informed, wrong and hugely misleading for a membership which has to face change, whether it wants to or not. There are countless examples in the Journalist’s extract from the commission report which suggest the union simply doesn’t have a clue.
Despite the ongoing collapse in print revenue and sales, they contend: “Print is not dead, nor even unwell”. Despite the inexorable rise of micropublishing they see media businesses “increasingly competing for an undifferentiated, global market”. They bemoan websites that “all begin to look alike, because design is restricted by the physical character [sic] of the medium”. As Shane said, show me a medium not “restricted by the physical character[istics] of the medium”. And, by the way, do check out the emerging science of usability, which helps you understand why some things are similar, or – if that’s too much – Jeff Jarvis’s notion of the visual grammar of news – it’s all about designing for users, not professional ego.
I could go on. All told, though, it’s a crock, with the cherry on top being the piece entitled “Web 2.0 is rubbish” written by Donnacha Delong, who represents new media journalists on the union’s executive. What has Delong being saying to defend his words?
Well, we had a long debate in the comments on this blog, during which he had to water down an early claim that “quite a few of our recommendations [from the witness contributor report] were subsequently adopted by broadcasters”, implying I was being harsh for attacking it while the big boys got on with engaging with the union and its ideas. There was no causal effect between union paper and broadcaster action, and we got a bit of clarity on that. Delong thought I was being “absurd” in pursuing it, but I thought it was important to find out what influence the NUJ had on policy, and we got an answer eventually.
Delong also chipped in on the Telegraph blog – more snide, there, perhaps thinking their writer’s criticism had more to do with politics than clue. That was unfortunate.
Most revealing, though, in an interview Delong had with BBC 5Live’s Pods & Blogs show, in which he made clear his nightmare vision was of publishers offloading all their professional reporters, and using only amateur reporters to file reports then edited by a rump of subeditors back in the otherwise deserted newsroom.
That is, indeed, a nightmare vision, and Delong puts an articulate case. But he’s talking about something that nobody is suggesting will happen. He says Roy Greenslade supports the nightmare in his blog, but that’s simply not true – Greenslade just openly worries about their being fewer staff jobs, and more freelance, user-generated and/or blogged content instead.
Now, what is the case is that once, people – mostly academics in the US – were suggesting it could go down like this; that amateur would replace pro (and then get paid, which made it all very confusing). But that was always bullshit, some of us called it, and eventually nothing much happened. The few citizen journalism projects there were didn’t do very well. Many of the old concepts of citizen journalism simply died on their arse.
Now the debate’s moved on to more rational ground, and we’re talking about “networked journalism” where professionals use the network – yes, of amateurs – to contribute to a huge piece of work. But this is on a different scale to just getting amateurs to replace pros. This isn’t stuff that pros could do alone.
But Delong, like a soldier lost in the woods, is fighting the war that was won years ago. And, damagingly for the union, he’s insisting it bear arms in the name of this cause as well. That’s why we’re all wondering what the hell’s going on.
So, there’s two ways this could be happening. Either the union feels the only way it can rally its troops to defend The Way Things Are is by painting a false picture of what’s on the horizon. Or it’s getting it wrong because key figures haven’t kept up with the debate among practicioners and academics.
Greenslade has concluded it’s all a big straw man – and decided to quit the union. For the moment, I’ll give the NUJ the benefit of the doubt, and hope it’s all a big misunderstanding. But the acid test will be: can we shift the union’s policies to a better-informed position? If not – and their current thinking has little basis in reality – then we’ll know they’re trying to put the frighteners on. Talk’s cheap. Let’s see what they actually do.
Tomorrow, I’ll start the push by suggesting here five things the NUJ could do to become more digitally savvy. Do leave you suggestions.