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  Issue No 81 Official Organ of LaborNet 08 December 2000  

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Media

Reality Check

By Aidan White - General Secretary, International Federation of Journalists

Aiden White, head of the international journalists' union, argues that online journalism presents a new set of challenges for organising.

 
 

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The optimism and over-blown enthusiasm for information technology of five years ago has given way within the trade union movement and the media industry to a more sober assessment of change not least because the pace of change is much slower than predicted.

Journalists' unions are uniquely well placed to take advantage of new technologies and should be in the vanguard of mobilising this new workforce. Our members are a wired community with greater use of e-mail and Internet than almost any other sector of employment.

In addition, if we look at the profile of global news and information services, such as those being developed by major national broadcasters like the BBC and CNN and the major news agencies such as Reuters, AP and AFP, we find that it is traditional media employers who are among the leaders in opening up new on-line information markets.

Therefore, for many of us the issue is about reshaping our existing organising base to fit a landscape being developed essentially by our current employers.

Although the final shape of the new information economy is not distinct, and many media employers are now rethinking their web-based strategies, there are some things about which we can sure:

Firstly, journalism is not in decline, far from it. Our jobs are changing, of course, but dire predictions of the imminent demise of traditional journalism have been proved wrong.

The Internet gives greater choice and on-line services offer a new information menu for consumers, and in just a few short years we have seen how traditional media outlets - major newspapers, global broadcasters, news agencies - have transformed themselves into models of convergence offering a selection of mediums for their information.

People still need a professional filter to provide them with information in digestible chunks, perhaps even more so in the overloaded information economy. Today we see opportunities in journalism expanding: there are more jobs and more outlets.

Secondly, on-line journalism is challenging the traditional models of trade union organisation as well as redefining the priorities for collective bargaining.

We see the erosion of working conditions brought on by technological change and changing patterns of employment.

New problems arise, including issues of control, privacy and health. Stress, for instance, has become a major factor, not least because of demands for multi-skilling and flexibility in working arrangements.

Almost all journalists' unions - including those in the poorest regions - recognise that authors' rights, the right of journalists to be paid fairly for the reuse of their work, is a priority when it comes to bargaining. This is a major question for freelances and for staff members who increasingly see their material being reused either in information databanks or in other on-line and CD-Rom formats.

Thirdly, new forms of journalism are changing attitudes to work and to quality of content among journalists.

According to the European Commission there are some 9,000,000 on-line workers in Europe, the majority of them working in temporary forms of employment.

"Atypical" is no longer appropriate to describe employment types that are rapidly becoming mainstream. The IFJ earlier this year published a worldwide survey that revealed how freelance journalism is the fastest-growing sector of employment. Today journalists have to accept short-term, temporary and casual jobs in a market that is ferociously competitive.

A rising number of young workers now actively seek self-employment rather than long-term careers in large enterprises. These new young workers have no expectation of a steady job. They are adapting to an employment market that driven by the need for cost savings and higher productivity depends upon on flexibility and short-term contracts with paltry social benefits, if any.

Large, hierarchical firms with discrete boundaries and relatively stable job descriptions and employment security are giving way to the flattening of organisational models. New technologies remove the constraints of time and distance. And the need for physical channels of communication. Already half the workforce in the wealthiest countries in Europe is employed in information handling. The content of work everywhere is more knowledge-based and less physical. This applies to broadcasting techniques as much as it does to car production.

Too often, many of the newcomers to journalism do not recognise that they are working in journalism at all.

As a result, the ethical values of journalism are also being whittled away through the erosion of secure employment.

The process of globalisation has increased competition for all business and none more so than in journalism. Now that time and space are not obstacles to competing, "time-to market" has become the critical source of competitive advantage.

In journalism this is reflected in the broadcasting network obsession with "breaking news" - the "scoop" culture whereby competitive news reporting is less and less subject to critical and ethical evaluation before publication, but depends entirely upon gaining competitive edge with instant and dramatic images of news "as it happens". We all like to be first, but quality and standards should not suffer in the race to publish.

Union Strategies for On-line Organising

The challenges for media unions representing workers in the knowledge economy can be set out as follows:

1. To develop better ways of communicating with and recruiting on-line journalists, using web-based technology and tools;

2. To put rights of on-line workers into the mainstream of union demands (access to corporate e-mail systems, including teleworkers; rights of free access to the Internet and corporate intranets -- so they can log on to union sites and other sites with information of value to their rights -- and an effective ban on electronic monitoring by the employer of worker e-mails or web-sites visited).

3. To rework established standards: including multiple-choice models for employees suited to employee requirements for flexibility (37-hour week model in Denmark: maintains standard but allows destandardised approach in application for different workers over different time periods)

4. To rekindle identification with unions: focus on continued need for worker protection with new services from trade unions using web-based technology including:

More timely and regular information (daily bulletins, not weekly) advertising more tailored and individual services with solidarity information ("cyberstrikes") and access to networks that provide job opportunities or cover specialist needs;

Establishing union call centres to provide advice "surgeries" for members on a 24-hour basis to mirror journalism shifts.

Above all, unions need to provide more efficient and effective ways of delivering information on

Salaries and terms of conditions,

Model contracts,

Insurance,

Authors rights,

Legal advice,

Pensions and social protection

Training issues.

Increased labour mobility means that workers cannot rely upon their employer to fulfil their social protection needs, for example for pensions and health care. Unions need to examine ways in which national social security systems can be adapted to meet the needs of workers who are moving around the media labour market.

It is no answer to believe that traditional methods of bargaining built upon the stability of a single model of employment will work in future. Indeed, in the years to come such fixed ideas will be increasingly irrelevant to the new workforce of on-line journalists.

Finally, we should be positive about the changes taking place. On line journalism is giving a new lease of life to journalism. We should have new opportunities to restore public confidence in quality, timely and accurate information.

Above all, we have new opportunities for work. Whether those jobs will be professionally worthwhile and able to meet basic labour standards will depend on how unions themselves adapt to the process of change.


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*   View entire issue - print all of the articles!

*   Issue 81 contents

In this issue
Features
*  Interview: Back to Work
After a stretch of unemployment following the 1996 election, former Keating Minister Robert Tickner is now helping others find work.
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*  Media: Reality Check
Aiden White, head of the international journalists' union, argues that online journalism presents a new set of challenges for organising.
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*  Economics: In the Same Boat
In an unprecedented move, a coalition of industry, community and trade union groups have joined forces to address long-trerm unemployment.
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*  International: Nepalese Hotel Workers Ask for Support
Hotel workers in the small Himalayan nation of Nepal have finally decided to vent their anger and call a general strike for Monday - over a 21 year old dispute.
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*  Unions: Speaking in Tongues
Labor Council's Mark Morey outlines the successful campaign by local government workers for a community language allowance.
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*  History: Fighting Words
The anti-conscription campaign of 1914-18 tore the ALP apart; but this was not the first time the labour movement took a militantly anti-war stance.
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*  Politics: A New Socialism
In an extract from his new book, political economist Frank Stilwell argues the need for a new radicalism to counter the Third Way
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*  Satire: Roy Slaven on the Rampage
John Doyle's history of the ABC stretches back to a 1958 evening in Lithgow on which he was "scared shitless" by Blackboard on Mr Squiggle.
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*  Review: Mauled in the Bear Pit
Vengeance may be sweet but it is always made better when you are able to write a book about yourself that also provides the opportunity to dump a bucket load on those who undertook your removal.
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News
»  Vale Cliff Dolan: A Lifelong Commitment
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»  Bussies Buck Up Over Lane Cheats
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»  Tassie Brings Home the Bacon on Call Centres
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»  Howard Sinks Merchant Navy
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»  Rural Line Drawn on Telstra
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»  Don't Rain on our Family Picnic Day
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»  ACTU Living Wage Case Begins
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»  National Action Hits Manufacturing Sector
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»  TWU Calls For Mayor to be Charged
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»  Workers Blow Whistle on Secret Melbourne IT Sell-Off
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»  Help Us Win a Gong!
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»  Reith Sacked Over Telecard Affair
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»  2001: A Tipster's Odyssey
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Columns
»  The Soapbox
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»  Sport
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»  Trades Hall
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»  Tool Shed
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Letters to the editor
»  Mike Dwyer to Address South Coast Council
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»  Media and Police Versus Protestors
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»  City Council Conspires to Compress Comrades?
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»  Labor's Education Sell-Out
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»  McGuiness Defended
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»  Is Costa a Sandwich Short of a Picnic Basket?
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