NUJ new media debate needs to define its terms

As Jon Slattery reports on his blog, there’s a motion from my old NUJ branch – London Magazine – tabled for the union’s conference that calls for the union to tackle the problem of being seen as out of date by new media journalists.

The motion says: “”This ADM notes that: 1) Social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and blogging are irrevocably changing the face of journalism. 2) That many of this new wave of journalists believe the NUJ’s attitude towards them is out of date. This ADM instructs the NEC to address this problem by working with the blogging community and Twitteratti to bridge this gap and create a framework that embraces the NUJ’s journalistic principles while maintaining the press freedom enjoyed by bloggers and twitterers.”

And I can see what they are getting at – I think. What worries me is that it’s bit ill-defined, and possibly takes too much at face value. Are social media platforms changing just journalism or are they changing the way we communicate? The two things are not the same and the difference is important. How is “the blogging community” to be defined? And if we must use the term “Twitteratti”, we need to define that too. Do bloggers and twitterers really “enjoy press freedom” or simply the freedom to comment?

There is work to be done, but too often when people say “the NUJ doesn’t understand new media” what they really mean is “the NUJ doesn’t agree with my view of new media”. I’ve seen this debate so many times over the years.

It may be interesting to note that many of the student journalists I teach ask for more sessions on basic journalistic principles and rather less name-checking of new communication platforms. They know about Twitter and blogging and Social networking and crowdsourcing; what they are interested in is how to apply what could be termed more traditional values to them – all that old-fashioned stuff like standing up a story and protecting sources.

One important point the motion doesn’t recognise is that there are differences between people who use social media platforms to comment or communicate, and journalists who use social media to carry out journalism. And each group wants to preserve those differences. A suspicion of and dislike for the media establishment has fuelled many a blog, and the ability of individuals to more easily publish has both introduced a vibrant new element of communication and given the media establishment a much-needed kick up the backside. From the trade side, journalists are right to value many of the processes we must undertake in order to publish what we produce, and in order to give the media we work for some authority.

I know that is seen as “old fashioned elitism” by some people, but I believe it’s possible to argue in favour of quality without automatically doing down other approaches.

I hope something good comes of the motion, and I know many good people in the NUJ will try to make it so. I don’t think the NUJ  always gets it right. I still doubt the wisdom of establishing a separate “new media” sector when new media methods are used across every area the union organises in, for example, and I had many arguments about this when it was proposed. (Oddly enough I was told I “didn’t understand” then too, when in fact I did understand, but didn’t agree. It must be something in the water).

A positive result of all this is will be to see the union for journalists engaging further with the way the trade itself is carried out. The future for unions is not just in pay and conditions, but in engaging in practical debate about how work is actually done. It’ll be interesting to see how this pans out.

#newmedia #NUJ

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