Quality the key to future of professional journalism

The NUJ Jobs Summit in London on 24 January 2009 saw almost 200 members gather together from across the UK and continental Europe to discuss how best to fight the continuing jobs crisis in the media. The overall conclusion? That focusing on quality journalism is the right way to build for the future.

The London Summit took place against a background of continuing bad news. Further cuts from major channels such as the BBC and the Guardian, uncertainty over the future of ITV’s C4 and Five, and similar crises in the UK regional press. Identical stories are emerging across Europe from Belgium to Macedonia.

The audience heard from speakers including Nick Davies, author of Flat-Earth News, Michael Klehm of the Deutsche Journalisten-Verband (DJV) and Deputy General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet. Breakout sessions, each lead by a small group of expert members, included:

  • Community campaigning – winning support for quality journalism.
  • Using the law and other procedures to fight cutbacks.
  • Challenging cutbacks at work.

NUJ President James Doherty, opening the day, quoted (media industry financial commentator) Claire Enders as predicting that, ‘a third of UK regional newspapers and half of all jobs in regional media will disappear by 2013.’ And that, ‘The voracious appetite for excessive profits, building up large debts and reckless management are the biggest threat to journalism since the days of derecognition.’

However, he said, ‘with your support we will fight for our titles …. We will fight for our role at the heart of our democratic society – and we will win the argument and help to drive forward a more plural, more accountable industry, which puts quality ahead of profits.’

A valuable event

For me, what was especially valuable about the whole day was the fact that this was no high-profile and high-performance seminar where experts lectured their audience from on high, but a workshop where anyone could interrupt and put his/her own views at any time. The result was a unique happening where we could pick up tips from seasoned campaigners across the union.

One of the new facilities launched on the day is the new ‘whistleblower’ function at head office, where you can send, anonymously, tip-offs about what is happening in your workplace. The email address is whistleblower@nuj.org.uk, or visit http://www.nuj.org.uk/innerPagenuj.html?docid=1090

Freelance issues

We also heard at length about the disappearance of freelance work across the media, confirming my own experience of the dire state of freelance journalism. Managing editors have for years simply been cutting freelance contributions as a quick way of trimming costs, without thought for the consequences.

Those consequences are, of course, deteriorating content quality and declining readership. A perfect lesson in how poor editorial management will, over years, kill a channel or publication. Just as effectively as if they were paid by a rival organisation to do so.

Finding the right strategy to support freelancers facing such awful market conditions is no easy matter. For myself I felt that the best hope for freelancers lies in training, both in skills and in business. This is where the union’s training resources are so valuable, offering courses in everything from coping with Dreamweaver to coping with depression.

Bringing the day to a close, Jeremy Dear reminded us that as employers turn their backs on successful and sustainable local media, it is left to the NUJ to defend journalists and the profession of journalism. He launched a call to arms, ‘a resolve to launch a high profile, active campaign to secure the future of quality content in our media’.

Why be in the union

And as we adjourned to the pub afterwards, I was reminded of why I’m in the NUJ – it is a huge morale booster. When news about your work is universally depressing, it’s a great consolation to know that you’re not alone, and that colleagues recognise and understand the same issues. Perhaps this is the best-kept secret about being in the union, it can still be, sometimes, rather fun.

The full head office report on the NUJ Jobs Summit can be found at http://www.nuj.org.uk/innerPagenuj.html?docid=1037

© Philip Hunt, 2009.