The NUJ and online media

Adam Tinworth’s two posts on the National Union of Journalists and their attitude to blogs and social media in general makes for rather depressing reading.

I’m well aware that this is just one discussion on one blog and isn’t necessarily representative of the whole organisation, but it’s illuminating on the (one) mindset of NUJ.

It all started when Adam’s colleague Martin Couzins wrote an impassioned plea for better online training from the NUJ on his personal blog.

The chair of the NUJ’s Professional Training Committee, Chris Wheal then responded in the comments, starting with the opening of “Try to be more constructive.” Not exactly a great start to addressing the question, although, in fairness he did offer a list of what was available.

Adam then picked up on this despairing that the response was rude and not overly helpful, and followed up a day later noting he’d had traffic to his blog from an NUJ internal email entitled “Effing blogs”.

What’s followed in the comments in both blog posts is uncomfortable to watch as it shows some very basic (wrong) assumptions on the behalf of Wheal and an attitude to blogging that, at worst, has the potential to alienate digital journalists the country over (please note: that says at worst.  And potential).

I don’t want this to seem like I’m picking on Wheal [1] but while he comes accross as web-savvy, his comments in both pieces just don’t seem to grasp how social media (God, sorry) operates.

Now, it’s certainly the case that there’s a massive grey area in the whole blogging / journalism arena. There are many blogging journalists and many journalists who blog (there is a difference), as well as many bloggers who do journalism and bloggers who just blog.

It can sometimes get a little tricky to sort out which shows how difficult it is to define what constitutes journalism in a Web 2.0 world, which, in turn is probably one huge problem the NUJ face. I don’t envy them trying to sort that definition out, as it often escapes those of us who work in the online medium on a daily basis.

But, if you’re really insisting on a straight definition (if such a thing is possible) then a blog (usually a group blog) that’s set up with the intention of making money through articles and opinion that resemble traditional journalism, kind of comes under the first.

That’s a completely imperfect definition, I know. It’s the best I can do on a Friday evening. It was rewritten half a dozen times before I gave up.

But then plenty of journalists blog on a personal level in their spare time. Adam’s One Man And His Blog is clearly a personal blog musing on the industry and other things he finds interesting, just as this blog is a personal blog. What I do elsewhere, mostly at Soccerlens, I classify as journalism.

Does that rough definition make sense? It’s the best I can give.

The reason for going into this somewhat lengthy and winding discussion on what classifies as journalism on a blog, his because Chris (and apologies if I’ve misinterpreted what he’s written as this is how it reads to me) seems to think all blogs should be lumped into the principles of journalism while at the same time utterly dismissing the notion that blogs have journalistic worth.

Now, there’s undoubtedly a point to be made on the standards on blogs. If blogging wants to be taken seriously as journalism then it should certainly hold it up to the same standards as offline journalism [2].

But, by and large, I think the best blogs do that. Why are, say, like likes of Shiny Media or Techcrunch any different from Roy Greenslade blogging at the Guardian, or a non-professional blogging for a local newspaper site on a community issue? Or Ben Goldacre who writes for the Guardian and blogs on the same topic and is VERY passionate about journalistic standards.

Or how about my writing for When Saturday Comes and Soccerlens. They’re on the same issues (slightly different audience) but one is print and one is online. Does the fact that you can’t hold a copy of Soccerlens in your hand make my articles have less worth?

But, by the same token, if you’re clearly writing personal thoughts on a personal blog, should you contact the subject of your thoughts (often personal posts are written on a whim in a spare moment) as Chris indicates?

I’ll leave that one hanging, if I may.

But, no, what has really got the digital journalism and bloggers fired up is not just the rather dismissive and condescending attitude in the comments (sorry Chris, that really is how it comes across) but this following comment:

“The NUJ fails to maintain standards in blogs because bloggers themselves rejoice in having lower standards.”


And Chris had earlier complained about huge generalisations in Adam’s post as well.

I honestly think that any points or arguments Chris made about encouraging bloggers to contact the NUJ have been undermined in that one sentence.

How many blogs actively make a point of celebrating the fact they’re, well, a bit shit? One of the joys of blogs and the internet in general is that it’s far easier to call out bad writing and journalism than ever before.

But let’s put blogs to one side for the moment and go back to the NUJ and the future of journalism itself, starting with a quick detour on my own quick history and thoughts on the organisation.

I’m not a member. This isn’t out of any conviction or protest on my part. I was a student member when I was at university in Cardiff. The Cardiff branch were excellent at keeping in touch and keeping me informed even though I never got in touch with them. That was comforting.

When I left Cardiff and moved from student to full-time journalist, I had a quick go at upgrading my details and signing but didn’t get anywhere.

A couple of emails went unanswered and I couldn’t get hold of anybody on the phone and it wasn’t high on my list of priorities, and I forgot about it. I’ve thought about joining over the years, but again, it’s always slipped by the wayside. No bitterness, just absent mindedness on my part coupled with no real pressing need to join.

I certainly wouldn’t go as far as Dave Lee, who, a few weeks ago, asked what the point of joining was. If anything, I think Dave’s given them too much of a harsh ride, although he has several valid points as well.

If I were freelance, I think joining the NUJ would be top of the list of my priorities, as I know they’re excellent in supporting that area of the profession.

The NUJ also offers excellent legal protection and help, from what I’ve read (thankfully I’ve never needed this) and if you’re a journalist facing redundancy, I’d imagine their support is second-to-none. They’re also very good at protesting against job cuts.

However, as Dave points out, it can sometime feel with the NUJ that the protests against job cuts fail to take into account the rapidly-changing nature of an industry that is all-too-often desperately short of money and facing an uncertain future.

It’s all too easy to say job cuts = bad. But, and this comes back to the point I think Martin was making that originally sparked this little brouhaha, while protesting about job cuts is one thing, giving efficient practical training and advice to help make journalists more employable in a digital age is quite another.

This isn’t to say that the NUJ is necessarily behind the times. After all, with a membership that vast, there’s plenty of online evangelists [3]. They had a very good article on Twitter in the Journalist magazine about nine months ago, showing they were very much awake to the potential of the microblogging site as a newsgathering tool. General Secretary Jeremy Dear has a blog, which is a good thing.

Again, in fairness to Chris – and without ever having been on the courses listed – from his list on Martin’s blog there looks like a good basic level of online training.

But, again, Chris’ comments on Adam’s blog combined with the Effing blogs email combined with the NUJ really don’t having a great reputation in the online and social media community really doesn’t help things.

Adam is (or perhaps soon to be was) a member of the NUJ and is a different generation from me, who could see the usefulness but never got around to joining, and we’re both different generations to Dave, who can’t see the point and hasn’t joined.

Ok, now three out of God knows how many isn’t representative. I know that. But it highlights a couple of issues, I think.

Dave and I have both grown up in an era where unions aren’t as influential or prevalent than they used to be [4]. We’re not expected to join a union. Indeed, of all the people who I trained with, I don’t think that many joined the NUJ.

Now, to bring in Adam, we’re all working in a digital age and environment (although, in my case, my day job is now in PR). The NEXT generation of journalists will have grown up not only without unions but immersed in that online environment.

They will blog, Twitter, podcast [5], vodcast and whatever else comes along between now and then. They will work for web-only publications, some of whom probably haven’t even been conceived at this point in time.

And if you’ve got their professional representative body taking a dismissive attitude to blogging on Adam’s blog and throughout the web (and this will all show up in Google when they search for the NUJ) then it’s hardly going to encourage them to join.

Putting my PR hat on, I could easily tell Chris that one of the quickest and most surefire ways to damage your brand online is to lash out in blogs comments, especially on blogs of respected people in their field, like Adam (who is well-known and highly regarded in his field).

No matter how wronged you feel your organisation has been, getting angry doesn’t help the cause. If there are any perceived errors, politely point them out. Offer to help with any of their gripes (which Chris did try to do at various points).

Above all, don’t get drawn into a slanging match. Your brand will be better off for it. If you feel the blog is that influential and the matter is that important, then you can always drop the author a polite but firm email and ask for corrections.

I love the openness and transparency of blog comments, both as a PR and whenever I turn my hand to journalism again. I can correct and acknowledge mistakes, enter into debate and learn things I didn’t know. What’s not to like?

The fact that the NUJ’s Chair of their Professional Training Committee doesn’t seem to understand blogs and comments – one of the most basic aspects of social media that has been around for ages – does not bode well for the organisation’s future. And it does not encourage me, or, I suspect others that work in an online or digital environment, to want to join the organisation. God alone knows what it says to young, digitally aware journalists of the future.

This is a personal view. It’s not written as a professional article (although if it were an opinion piece for a media industry publication, the sentiment would be the same).

But if anybody – and that includes Chris and anybody from the NUJ – wants to disagree with me, correct me, or add something to the discussion I’ve not thought of, then I’d love to see the comments used for this purpose. Because that’s what they’re their for, regardless of who I am or what I do.

[1] Who, again, does seem to have a good grasp of the tools available on the net. He’s already a better man than me if he can use Yahoo Pipes to their full extent – something I’ve never really tried, and something I know I should try.

[2] Offline journalism is, in itself, a ridiculous notion, as very few ‘old’ media don’t have a web presence. And those who don’t probably won’t be around for much longer if they don’t.

[3] Yuck, sorry, hideous terminology there.

[4] Not saying if this is a good or a bad thing, but certainly Thatcher and Murdoch did their best to get to this state of play.


6 Responses to “The NUJ and online media”

  1. 1 apb148 February 20, 2009 at 7:37 pm

    To me the difference is simple. Journalistic blogs involve research, and work to maintain journalistic quality and integrity. Regular blogs are pure oppinion and don’t require much research or hard work. Just like editorial comments in the newspaper.

  2. 2 Nosemonkey February 20, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    I’d say ditto to apb148 above on the definition of journalistic blog. Proper journalism is self-evident. You know it when you see it.

    The thing is, though, the NUJ isn’t a union just for journalists who write meticulously-researched, original pieces. It contains among its members any number of hacks who spend most of their days re-writing agency copy, or spewing out mindless churnalism, celebrity gossip and banal lifestyle pieces that could be written by anyone with a spare five minutes to look up the subject-matter on Google. Most professional journalists these days don’t live up to the (near-mythical) journalistic standards of yesteryear any more than most bloggers do.

    Of course, if this NUJ chap is arguing for a return to such high journalistic standards across ALL media types then I’m all for it. If newspapers could scrap all the mindless dross and concentrate on “proper” journalism again then I’d be delighted. Or at least, I would be for the week or so they managed to keep it up before going bankrupt – because there’s no money in “proper” journalism. We live in a world where Jade Goody’s wedding plans are of more interest to more people than the possibility that the Home Secretary – the Home sodding Secretary, for Christ’s sake – abused public funds for personal gain. Little wonder, then, that journalistic standards are slipping across the board. To single out blogs – the vast majority of which make no pretence to be “journalistic” and have no hope of competing with the professional media – suggests a rather blinkered take on the industry.

    (As a vague aside, I’ve never bothered joining the NUJ myself. First qualified for student membership about 12-13 years ago now, but was too lazy. When I got my first job on a magazine the company didn’t recognise the union, so there was little point. Soon after I went full-time freelance a couple of years back I was just getting around to joining when they organised an anti-Israel boycott – and as that went entirely against my personal ideal of journalistic impartiality it’s put me off the idea for good. This latest silly outburst from someone from the union hasn’t exactly improved my opinion of the organisation either…)

  3. 3 Donnacha DeLong February 21, 2009 at 1:54 am

    Hi Gary,
    First off, I’d like to thank you for at least looking at this in a fairly level-headed way. Much of the hostility in comments is to do with obvious hostility in the posts from other posters. But I would like to comment on a few things:

    “The NEXT generation of journalists will have grown up not only without unions but immersed in that online environment.

    “They will blog, Twitter, podcast [5], vodcast and whatever else comes along between now and then. They will work for web-only publications, some of whom probably haven’t even been conceived at this point in time.”

    Hmm, firstly, why is this the “NEXT generation” when journalists like myself have been working online only for more than a decade. I’ve worked almost exclusively as an online journalist (apart from a couple of little bits of freelance work for print publications now and then) since 1998 – with RTÉ and Amnesty International mainly (but also Edexcell and, believe it or not, the Council for World Mission – the dot bomb led to some desperate measures).

    You give the impression that the union isn’t in the online space, which is completely wrong. New media is the fastest growing sector of the NUJ – we’ve got strong membership not only in the usual suspects (BBC, Guardian), but also in AOL and hundreds of members dotted around the industry. We have designers, coders, bloggers and journalists of all descriptions as members and the list is growing all the time.

    The next generation isn’t suddenly going to appear afresh without any connections to those who’ve gone before and, if things keep going the way they’ve been going, the NUJ will be as well established in online media and beyond as it has been in print, TV and radio.

    “Above all, don’t get drawn into a slanging match. Your brand will be better off for it. If you feel the blog is that influential and the matter is that important, then you can always drop the author a polite but firm email and ask for corrections.”

    You do realise the NUJ is a trade union, not a product? Sorry to seem facetious, but unions are usually expected to stand up and fight for principles. Unions are, when they work properly, democratic organisations full of robust debate. If we didn’t stand up for ourselves and our members, no-one would notice we were around.

    What particularly riled Chris was the attack on the people employed by the union to work in the training department. Attacks on the union’s employees are not fair and not legitimate – they’re people who do a very difficult job very well and ill-informed attacks on them will elicit a strong response from those of us who know what they do. If you want to attack someone, go for those of us elected to the National Executive Committee who are directly responsible to members.

    Finally, it’s important to remember that, when people like Chris or I comment on blogs, we’re doing so as individuals – we’re not the union. The union is its thousands of members, with all the contradictions, personalities and egos that goes with them. That’s what you get with a democratic trade union.

  4. 4 Gary Andrews February 21, 2009 at 12:30 pm

    Hi Donnacha, it’s definitely reassuring to read your comment as it’s good to know there are some people in the union who are very online orientated (and, as somebody who has been pushing colleagues online at pretty much every place I’ve been, I know that this isn’t always the easiest of tasks).

    A couple of quick things on your comments, as much to clarify what I wrote than anything else.

    The next generational thing: This wasn’t so much there’s a complete difference between those working today and those tomorrow. I think what I was trying to get across was the majority of us working in journalism or the media today have had to adapt to online – most of the developments have come after we were born. Even for those of us in our late twenties, like myself, it’s not something that has come naturally. We’ve had to pick up these skills, learn new mindsets and new ways of working.

    The next generation have practically been born with the internet in their hand (well, not literally). The internet will have always been there rather than something that at one point was new, exciting and unfamiliar. Chances are they’ll be much more web savvy than your average journalist working today (not including the like of you, I, Nosemonkey or Adam in this, but you get what I mean hopefully).

    At the same point, unions aren’t quite as prominent or as influential as they once were. I’d argue (and this is from an entirely personal point of view) that it’s not longer a matter of course for new journalists to sign up with the NUJ – they need to be sold on it, convinced what the benefits are for them.

    Maybe the current recession will do just that, given that the job market is less stable. But if the union wants to build and recruit the next generation of journalists, it has to appeal to them, including embracing the online world they’ve grown up with, and Chris’ comments probably won’t do any favours in that area.

    Hope that makes sense.

    As for describing the NUJ as a brand – that was done deliberately. I’d argue that any organisation, product or no product, that requires donations or money or is selling something (in this case the benefits and security of being in a union) can be described as a brand.

    You are selling something, you are soliciting money from people (even if it is for a good cause. I think the union is generally a good thing, even if I’m not a member). That, to me, is a brand. The NUJ is a brand, MacMillan Cancer are a brand, Liberty are a brand, the Labour party are a brand and Nike is a brand. Brands can be damaged or harmed if they send out the wrong signals, so, to my mind, Chris has damaged the NUJ’s online brand with his comments.

    A couple of quick (although knowing me, it probably won’t be quick 🙂 ) points I disagree with the above

    I genuinely don’t think that the majority of comments or Adam or Martin’s original posts were particularly hostile – frustrated, yes, but not hostile. Certainly in Adam’s first post, there looked like some kind of progress in the comments. Had it been left there, that would be that. I don’t even think they were intended as an attack on the department (at least not how I read it).

    But (and while not wanting to speak for Adam here), try to put yourself in his shoes. You’ve had a minor disagreement, but seem to have come to some kind of conclusion. Then you notice the ‘effing blogs’ thing. Would not that get your back up slightly? I wouldn’t be best pleased if I’d got traffic to this post with that as the subject line.

    And Chris’ comments – while he may have been genuinely hurt by some of what was said on there – didn’t help the situation. There’s plenty of dismissive, angry, condescending and scattergun comments to all and sundry there, and that hasn’t helped. You’ve got Charlie Beckett and Suw Charman-Anderson in the comments, both of whom definitely know what they’re doing and with years of experience (much more so than me, that’s for sure).

    One of the areas I’m currently working on is reputation management online and the way Chris has handled this is a classic example in how not to play it. I’d genuinely love to know what he found inaccurate in Adam’s posts (and Adam doesn’t write the comments either – compared to the type of comments on, say, a typical Guardian piece, it’s been pretty intelligent and civil).

    To me, it’s something that’s been blown out of all necessary proportion largely (and sadly) by Chris’ comments.

    He may well be a leading light in online training and journalism and very clued up in that area. He just doesn’t come across like that in what he’s written – and he takes it hard for people to differentiate between Chris the NUJ Training Chair and Chris the journalist and NUJ member. If he’d made that clear from the start, I think that would have helped things.

    But, and I hope that hasn’t come across as too negative, it’s really good to read what you say about online journalism and it’s good to know there are people heavily involved in the organisation who working in and pushing for more online training and representation. And, yes, it’s a huge organisation – you’re always going to get people from the extremes of the spectrum (eg online is great, online is crap).

    I’d also like to echo what the other two comments above say as I agree entirely with them.

  5. 5 whealie February 22, 2009 at 8:28 pm

    I’ve only skimmed this but it seems a reasonable analysis.

    yes I was over – defensive but the original post said we did nothing and we do. People did not know the GS has a blog and yet it is linked to on the home page of the NUJ website and so on.

    I do understand that bloggers post opinions and then have the arguments online.

    I also know that lost of things have been found out and first reported on blogs and then followed up by mainstream media. – the Caveat tot hat is that a lot of thing that would have been ignored or avoided by the mainstream media (an therefore for never published) appear to have more legitimacy if they appear on a blog and get picked up. This is also true of youtube video.

    My point is that journalism – so I am really referring to journalists’ blogs – ought to follow the rules and ethics of journalism, not have a lower set of standards.

    If you read the comments people made to my posts, many do rejoice in the fact that bloggers do not need to check their facts before publication, for example. That, to me , is rejoicing in lower standards.

    So, I agree with the comments made. We have low standards in some areas of the printed media and in broadcast too. I criticise them equally. I am all about raising standards.

    The NUJ’s Professional raining Committee has decided to launch it s own blog. When it (that probably mean I) do(es) in a week or so, please come along and comment.

    • 6 Gary Andrews February 23, 2009 at 2:50 pm

      Firstly, that’s excellent news that the Training Committee is launching its own blog and I look forward to reading it. One of the things I love about well-done blogs from companies, organisations and professional bodies is that they provide an excellent way to communicate on an informal level and get real engagement and discussion going. Hopefully the NUJ blog will achieve this 🙂

      But (and there’s always a but) I still think you’re wrong about bloggers rejoicing in lower standards (and I think that comment, more than any , got people’s backs up).

      Adam made the point over on the comments on his blog that it’s different standards rather than lower ones. You’ll rarely find a blogger that rejoices in the fact that they’re worse than journalists. Many of them strive to be – and often achieve – better standards, and the comments are an excellent way to correct.

      I also think that you’re still trying to apply a traditional way of working to a medium that’s different. Oneline, like print and broadcast, is a different medium.

      And, in this case, you have two PERSONAL blogs that aren’t dealing with stories. They’re posting opinions and observations. I think this is a key difference. Martin’s post was an opinion and, one of the joys of this is if somebody posts something on a blog that is wrong, it can be easily corrected and that comes down to how to engage on blogs – and, again, I think this was what upset people. I think this whole, erm, whatever it is (brouhaha, incident, issue, whatever) would have probably been avoided with a friendly “Hi Martin, thanks for your comments. By the way, just to point out that actually we do have training in this area, here’s a few links, let me know if you’ve got any more questions on this, etc etc. I didn’t read it as Martin being out to deliberately write a negative story on the NUJ (because it wasn’t a story in the first place) just expressing frustration. That’s the joy of blogs, you can interact, correct and the rest in real time. I quite like this way of working.

      Also, yes, raising standards, I’m all for it. But realistically, how do you apply this to a personal blog. Take this one for example. I have, in the past, briefly ranted about British Gas’ customer service on here (this isn’t something I do often or would necessarily encourage – mroe the last desperate act of a man who has been passed from pillar to post in a customer service hell). Now, picture the scene. As an occasional journalist, upholding these standards, I ring the BG press office:

      “Hi, I’m calling about something I’m writing. It’s about a customer who’s had a poor experience with customer service.”

      “Ok, who are you writing it for?”

      “My personal blog. It gets about a thousand hits a month. But I am a journalist.”

      I’m not quite sure what the press officer’s response would be, but I think I can guess.

      Now, if I was writing for a consumer website (I’ve never written for one of these), I can imagine I’d get a slightly different response.

      “Hi, I’m doing a story about your level of customer service. I’m writing for Consumer Website X. Our address is — and we get x hits a month…”

      You see what I’m getting at here?

      And, yes, this comes back to some of the work I do for Online PR. It can be frustrating when somebody gets something wrong about your organisation, but often a friendly email or comment rectifies this quite quickly. A defnesive comment often makes the situation worse. Openness, transparency and accuracy are the watchwords both for journalism and PR. We’re getting there slowly, I think 🙂

      Quick bit on legitimacy – these stories that break online can occasionally have this impression. But that’s largely due to the media who give credence to it. And if it’s not being covered, people often ask why not (there may be good reasons for this, but it’s kind of a vicious circle that we’ve got into and I’m not sure how we break out of it).

      Anyway, in conclusion: Journalists are sometimes wrong. Bloggers are sometimes wrong. Both can be corrected, some are easier to correct than others. And unless it’s really bad, it’s probably not worth losing any sleep over.

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February 2009

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Yes, this is my name. And my email. Use it wisely or you're not getting a biscuit with your tea: garyllewellynandrews [at] gmail [dot] com

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