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.