I laughed when I saw m’fellow j-blogger Paul Bradshaw had also been annotating a print-out of the NUJ’s Shaping the Future report – the product of their commission on multi-media working.
First, his picture and mine, right, proves the paperless office remains a myth, even among those of us paid to be webheads – I’d printed the PDF out to read it too. Second, we clearly both needed highlighter help as we waded through the 55 pages, trying to work out if the union had actually managed to get its act together since it caused such disquiet with some initial findings earlier in the year.
And the short answer is… yes, it has. The report has some problems – more of which later – but it seems only fair to lead on the news that the final report is substantially better than what was published in that controversial (if predictably rubbish) edition of The Journalist – the one that prompted Roy Greenslade’s departure from the union, and the scorn of many others.
This time out, Jeremy Dear’s introduction sets the right tone from the off by making a proper distinction between the underlying technologies powering the digital revolution, and the silly things some media owners are attempting to do under the cover of modernisation.
This shows a level of understanding completely absent from much of what the union has had to say about the web to date, and is a significant step forward. When I met union new media rep Donnacha Delong for an affable coffee after the initial row, this was my one plea to him and his colleagues: understand the technology could make journalism much better, and understand bad management – whether committed under the guise of multimedia working or not – is still just bad management.
That seems to have happened. In today’s report there are lots of reasonable sections; on pay, conditions, working practices and training. The proposed union focus on journalism education, for instance, would be welcome – as long as it wasn’t to insist on everyone learning to bash out 300 words on a typewriter. Nor can you find fault with calls for more consensual approaches to sorting out multimedia working on newspapers, or proper training for people moving from print into the digital realm. All this is, really, is good management.
The report’s closing pages on the future of journalism are much better researched than previous pronouncements on digital from the union and – while I’d take issue with some of the points – at least come to some solid conclusions. And I was delighted to see the union acknowledge, on page 31, that journalists would have to establish themselves as a brand, even if I was a little disappointed they didn’t run with this idea and examine what a liberating effect this approach has had, in other industries, on working lives.
The problems? There are lots of references to “good journalism” where, one suspects, they mean “the way things have always been done”. In particular, the document is predictably keen on preserving sub-editing jobs, and it insists standards cannot be maintained without subbing processes. I’m not so sure.
As a former sub myself, I’ve got some sympathy. When I first started out subbing (on another title, I should add) I was always astonished at the pisspoor prose emerging from some big names. Anonymous subs were, often, asked to rescue what appeared under the bouffant byline pictures.
But, as ad revenues shrink with the shift online, is there a future for the journalist who can’t actually write? Blogs, self-published and unedited, immediately out the illiterate and the deathly dull [you're here, you already know that]. But things aren’t that bad. It appears there is a world of people out there who can string accurate, properly punctuated sentences together. We’ll always need subs – they’re essentially the only quality assurance journalism has. But given the apparent widespread literacy among our readers, should news organisations of the future employ people who can’t actually write, and who need the traditional four, five or even six layers of subbing? The new economics of content might make the decision for them.
The final irritation: the union continues to flog the dead horse of its Witness Contributor Code of Conduct, which remains a profoundly silly document. For example, its insistence on, whenever possible, using “material produced by NUJ members [...] when such alternatives to witness contributors are available” cheapens the latest, more savvy, report. It speaks more of a fear than an understanding or vision of what users might add to our traditional work. It looks old-fashioned alongside today’s report, and should be spiked.
But to end on a positive: when I spoke to Donnacha, it wasn’t clear if the report would make the web in a form that would allow us to link to it (ie – something other than a PDF). Not only has the union put the lot online (that’s what all those links are, above) but it has finally redesigned its entire website, with the ability to leave comments on some pages. I haven’t had a chance to properly look through the new site, but putting the report online is a step forward as well.
The union’s still got a way to go if it’s to fully understand the threats and opportunities facing its members, but it’s made a lot of progress in only a couple of months.
Let’s hope it keeps going.