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."

Ouch.

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.