Guy Berger
Guy Berger

Saving journalists and saving journalism

The shockwaves of collapsing newspapers in the US have startled everyone around the world, not least the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

It’s a body which represents some 600 000 media staffers across 120 countries. Or so it did, according to figures last year. Today, the crisis is cutting into those numbers.

A think-tank, dubbed the “Future Group”, has now been set up by the IFJ to advise on the changing landscape of journalism and the future of organising the people who practise journalism.

Therein lies part of the challenge: not everyone doing journalism today is a journalist in the employed career-sense of the word.

What’s a trade union to do when the professional class of journalists is shrinking, and yet there are ever-expanding numbers of alternative practitioners (individuals and institutions)?

It’s not a case of outsiders undercutting workers as against employers; it’s a matter of an entire industry shedding audiences in newspapering and on the airwaves, and still not picking up enough internet advertising to pay the bills.

Behind all this, and predating the recession, are fundamental changes in access to means of mass communications. In developed countries, these have come to a head under current economic pressures, and even the developing world won’t ultimately escape these trends.

The first session of the IFJ group last week came in the aftermath of a recent crisis at the Boston Globe newspaper. At that publication, journalists voted to reject management proposals for cuts to staunch that paper’s losses. The result? They still found themselves facing a 23% cut in wages.

From an employee and union perspective, much of the media industry has lost its way — for instance, by ineffective responses to challenges like Google News or citizen journalism. And too many newspapers continue as if they were still society’s only players supplying people with yesterday’s news.

The trouble is that when entire ships go down, the sailors also drown. In this case, some of the captains are calling for talks with their underlings to find ways to keep everyone afloat.

It’s in this the emerging dialogue, that the IFJ wants to lead the debate about what’s to be done. Understandably, their first priority is on the job security and working conditions of those employed full or part-time by the media industry — and the survival of the unions themselves.

“What kind of members do we want — well, anyone breathing,” quipped one unionist at the IFJ “Future Group” meeting. “I’m not even sure they need to be breathing,” added another.

But the federation is also deeply aware that the issues at stake go wider than the immediate interests of their people — that there are implications for democracy.

The point is that accumulated expertise is being lost for good as retrenched journalists move to find different jobs. Those left behind are struggling to maintain quality. Such losses to democracy can’t be compensated for by bloggers or NGOs putting information online.

Para-journalistic producers tend to lack the resources and expertise for major investigative or international reporting. They are also short of mass platforms that can draw in the general public.

On the positive side, they do fill niches, amplify and annotate the journalism produced in media houses, and keep a critical eye on the failings of mainstream journalists. But that complements rather than replaces the role of fulltime journalism underpinned by enduring media institutions.

Seen in this light, the IFJ’s interest saving journalistic jobs is not just about individuals’ livelihoods, but retaining occupations with a uniquely democratic significance.

In a nutshell, a weak media industry is not only bad news for the media unions. It’s also bad for society which needs strong organised voices to represent those at the coalface of the craft — namely, the professionals whose priority is journalism and nothing else.

It emerged at the IFJ think-tank, however, that many media people are not thinking about the longer-term. Instead, there’s denialism in the newsrooms about what the trends portend.

A defensive, reactive response by journalists to competing content producers and divided adspend is understandable, but insufficient for medium-term sustainability.

Accordingly some participants at the “Future Group” posited that if the unions can’t completely protect members from the evolving crisis, they need to put energy into preparing their people to navigate it.

What the discussion made clear is that it’s not enough to seek ways to preserve and maintain jobs dedicated to journalism; there should also be steps to develop and enhance that journalism.

Part of that may mean finding common ground with others who believe in the value of journalism. While the IFJ and its member unions need to reinvent services for those people earning a living from the media industry, they also need to enlist support beyond the traditional walls of mass media.

This means possibly serving those burgeoning ranks of journalism practitioners who do not earn a living from journalism, but have a commitment to it.

The two constituencies who nowadays are doing journalism differ in that only one of them has employers to face down.

But both share common interests in representative bodies that can promote quality journalism.

To this end, unions and the IFJ can deal with employers and others in formulating a viable future for journalism across the board.

For example, if, as seems to be happening in the US, private-sector economics can’t make the traditional business model work for journalism, other options hove into view. State support is one, but worldwide the public-service broadcast model for instance is experiencing funding stress.

There’s also no appetite at the IFJ for subsidies, which would simply go into maintaining management bonuses, or drained into a business model that is being overtaken by history.

But there is openness to subsidies for buy-outs, merging of platforms, innovative ownership models, and to foundations that can support investigative journalism.

And there’s enthusiasm to find and promote examples of new journalism which will intensify the case at large as to why the world needs journalism — as well as media-based journalists.

* The author is co-chairperson of the IFJ’s “Future Group” think-tank, a group of ten journalism union leaders and academics from Canada, the UK, Australia, Brazil, Spain and Indonesia.

  • http://hardtalk Siphiwo Siphiwo

    Let them drown. They are useless, biased, and forever embedded anyway; most of them behave the mouthpiece for political parties.

    Just look at what they were saying before our elections; “anc is likely to lose these elections”; “they might be a new coalition govt in south africa”; and they’ve said the same thing in iran that the opposition party would win the elections, and when the results say the opposite, they accuse someone else.

    We will continue blogging even if there are not news agencies existing.

  • http://hardtalk Siphiwo Siphiwo

    phew, so many typos on my previous post

  • Salvatore

    Journalists continue to ignore, as usual and to their peril, how newspapers might “save” a rather less fashionable though no less valuable species in the media food chain, without which their concerns are unlikely to be addressed, in a capitalist democracy at least — the small advertisers who could help finance their labours.

    Compare the vague promises (aka “lies”) on the hugely inflated rate cards of most newspapers with the quantifiable ROI of keyword or IP-targeted advertising and you will realise the business model needs more than a minor tweak. Why would a trader select an unverified banner ad placement on a barely seen local news page ($40-$75 per ‘000) over a less risky IP-localised search service that offers targeted, motivated audience (10-15c per click)? I’m afraid you will need to solve that puzzle before you are afforded the privilege of addressing your future employment issues.

    In a world with more content than air, and audiences brought up on the news equivalent of Happy Meals, publishers still seem intent on “burying the lead”. Search businesses will continue to accrue billions at the expense of content providers 10c-15c at a time, simply because they are taking their advertisers seriously.

    Maybe the news media should ask themselves why it is that only Google and the porn industry can deliver IP-targeted marketing these days. Yet the Mail & Guardian cannot tell the difference between a Wimbledon housewife and a Sandton accountant when they serve up an advert.

  • Lyndall Beddy

    The best days of Investigative Journalism in SA were the days before we even had TV – news only came from newspapers, who could afford top quality staff.

    TV cut into their advertising funding and quality dropped, specialised journalists disappeared, and newspaper groups merged which reduced variety.

    The problem is that Google feeds on linking the work of journalists to the public but does not pay for using that work.

    Musicians are having a similar problem with music being shared and not paid for on the net.

    Would the solution not be for newspapers internationally to enforce copyright against Google?

  • Lyndall Beddy

    They managed to enforce copyright when Google tried it with books.

  • haiwa tigere

    Quite right Sipho let them drown- the holier than thou cows.have not bought a newspaper in 3 years – I find the news on the newspapers so yesterday.there is so much you can do on the net about news you can focus on something (like Zumas wives with pictures and all) or just on SA. something you cant do in newspapers (you have to read about pedophiles in trying to find something about the latest cricket score. newspapers as we know them are dead. thank god

  • Madoda

    Journalists and media houses are their worst enemies:

    1. They fail to understand that in the knowledge economy driven by technology such as the internet, news is virtually free. Why must I pay for yesterdays news, when I can get the news free online, on radio, satellite TV from somewhere else. I completed a M&G Online questionnaire last month that dared to ask if I was prepared to pay for online news. I do not even pay for online news from the Washington Post, Wall Street, etc.

    2.The content of the news reported by journalists in South Africa is irrelevant, self-serving and has nothing to do with enhancing democracy. The “news” is always littered with opinions and commentary such that raw facts are distorted. Self-proclaimed analysts spoonfeed the public about the interpretation of facts. In SA, this was proven by how Malema was able to win youth votes for the ANC against the predictions of the journalists and analysts who told us he was costing ANC votes.

    3. Public opinion as carried in the mass media is a misnomer because it is the view of the elite few (editors, Zapiro and analysts) but not the plurality of views of the genuine public (48 million South African).

    4. Media confuses objectivity with opposing everything the govt does. Only the sensational and pessimistic stories are reported. I no longer spend money to buy soap opera newspapers because they inflict mass trauma and depression. I am also saving the environment.

  • David Bullard

    Look at the calibre of people running newspapers in this country and look at the dross most newspapers print to save money and you have your answers.

    I read the FT Weekend every week because a)I learn things and b) the journalists are employed on their ability to write and not on some strange demographic criteria.

    It’s all about adding value and most newspapers don’t these days.

  • Spaghetti

    Ah, that’s vintage Lyndall for you; still hankering after the good old days. (TV was only introduced to South Africa in 1976. What else happened that year? Oh, yeah! The massacre of Soweto schoolkids.)

  • Elvis Milambo

    As a journalist, i think the journalism profession has been evaded by unprofessional people masquerading as real journalists and they are the ones who do not know how to produce well balanced reports.Because everyone can broadcast and write from anywhere, this is providing a challenge to the profession which, unfortunately could not be regulated like the legal or medical professions.
    People’s lifestyles changed.The first thing most pipo do in the morning is to touch one of their mobile devices and not the newspaper.And there lies the dilema.Should newspapers follow the new technologies in the knowledge based economy and provide the news for free and die or should they reconsider their business model?Most of them closed down and i wont mention names.
    Even television faces the same dilema .
    Perhaps the journalism profession needs some clean up but then you cant regulate because everyone is now a writer and broadcaster.I want to believe that a new model will be born.Thats how the telegrams died and new things came but to think the post office will close down because of email needs re-thinking.

  • Walt

    The MSM clearly has an agenda. People are increasingly becoming aware that reporting is biased in favor of Government and Marxist propaganda. We sense that we are being deliberately mis-informed.
    Internet provides rapid updates, ability to query facts and crosscheck quickly. This results in a more informed opinion, tempered with alternative viewpoints. Basically, truth. That which is today absent from the MSM.
    My view – good riddance – you won’t be missed. Go the way of the Dodo.

  • Lobengula

    In the U.S. the major news media have been feeding the public pablum (baby food) for years, and even that is heavily biased. if you don’t think so, check out NBC’s Brian Williams bowing to Barack Obama. Don’t take my word for it – check it out for yourself. It’s disgusting.

    Let them all drown and good riddance!

  • Lyndall Beddy


    This is about economics. Before TV advertising the whole advertising budget went to newspapers.

    It is lack of advertising money that is killing good journalism.


    The on line “news” all comes from journalists.

    Close down the papers, including the on line papers, and all you will have for “news” is what everyone can blog about the goings on in their neighbourhood.

    And who will pay the administrators of the blogsites?

  • Guy Berger

    Dear commenters
    Thanks fo rthe vibrant comments and critiques. Yes, there are problems in mainstream journalism, but please remember you would not even have this platform if it was not for a mainstream journalism operation – the M&G. So, don’t throw out baby with bathwater!
    Guy Berger

  • David Bullard

    Sorry Elvis… are so not a journalist. “Evade” for “invade” is unforgivable.

  • Elvis Milambo

    You are right about the mistake and thanks.You are the greatest editor.

  • Pingback: El futuro del periodismo « Periodismo Global: la otra mirada()

  • Winkie

    People fail to differentiate between journalism and newspapers. They also fail to distinguish between journalism and the provision of information.
    Journalism can be ‘committed’ on many platforms other than the newspapers. A good journalist can use digital media as effectively as print. But the information provided by digital media is nto necessarily journalism – a Twitter may tell you something that makes you gasp and tell all your friends, but is it true? Has it been subjected to the assessment and ethical guidelines decent journalists use? For instance, in Iran, it was twittered, apparently, that the opposition leader had been jailed – not true, but thousands of digital followers believed it. Is that journalism or gossip?
    We can and may lose newspapers – and maybe it will be good for journalism to be removed from the malign influence of advertising and thrown back on sheer investigative merit – but when we lose the service provided by journalism, we’ll lose something vital to our democratic health. And we probably won’t relaise it till it’s gone.

  • Pingback: Maggie's Farm()

  • David Robert Lewis

    I think President Sarkozy’s solution is the best one yet. The French president gave every 18year old in France a newspaper subscription in lieu of a subsidy to the industry. This way, the youth would learn the benefit of reading newspapers and the habit of reading a daily would be inculcated. Dare one say Zuma could be the answer to journalistic woes in SA?