Defending Journalism in the Digital Age – ESIEMTH – 12 Nov 09
James Doherty, President NUJ
I wish to begin by thanking President Makis Voitsidis and your union for
inviting me to Thessaloniki – I have to say that I am eternally grateful for
the hospitality that has been shown to me. When I travel around the UK,
I am lucky to have a hotel with hot water, let alone a sea view in such
When I return to the UK, I will ask for similar treatment, but I doubt that
anyone will listen!
And on behalf of the 40,000 members of the NUJ in the UK and Ireland,
I’m proud to bring you a message of solidarity and support.
We are here today to examine the future of journalism in the Digital Age.
I noticed on your leaflet that you have the IFJ’s Stand up for Journalism
banner – a campaign started by the NUJ almost three years ago.
And we must all stand up for journalism, now more than ever. Across the
world, journalism is under threat like never before.
Increasingly, the greatest threat to press freedom and quality is not
from the internet, it is not new technology. It is the same problem
that almost destroyed our economy, both here in Greece and
indeed, across the world. In television, newspapers, radio and
online, it seems that nothing is more important than profit. Quality
is not longer relevant in the quest for profits – and journalists and
their skills are seen as an expensive, redundant force. Citizens,
apparently, can do the job for less. Free is better.
The explosion of so-called citizen journalism, amateur blogs and
web 2.0, is perhaps, an unexpected bonus for the media
executives, who are always looking to find another way cheap way
of making money for their shareholders.
I am not arguing against new technology. Far from it, we should be
embracing it, welcoming the digital age as a fresh beginning, a new
medium which can include the public in reporting and making the
news – but the harsh reality in the UK, the US, and increasingly
across the world, is that publishers and broadcasters are not
investing in the journalists who have the skills and knowledge to
produce professional content. While they may claim to be
focussing their efforts in the technology of tomorrow, their actions
prove that they have no interest in the quality of the material being
published, whether it’s produced online, in newsprint or broadcast
through TV and radio.
Just look at the example of the UK. In the last few years,
thousands of journalists’ jobs have been lost. Around one-in-five of
all jobs in the local media have gone in the past 18 months alone.
Our main commercial broadcaster, ITV, has shed almost half of all
jobs, while the BBC – held in the highest regard around the world –
has seen hundreds of quality journalists gone, after thousands of
jobs were lost in the last few years.
More than 60 local newspaper offices have closed and dozens of
newspaper titles have gone in towns and cities where they were
once so valued. Every sector of the UK and Ireland’s media – all
have been victims of the collapse of the failed economic model of
So who is to blame? It is easy for us to point to new technology –
and the failure of advertising revenues in a global recession – and
the difficulty in raising advertising revenue to pay for the brave new
medium of the internet. But that is far too simple.
The news business has evolved. News is immediate. It’s on
demand. Here in Greece, the most recent research showed that:
78% of Greeks access news from TV broadcasts, followed by 41%
in the press, 35% through the internet and 32% from listening to
There has been an explosion in largely unregulated broadcasting
since the state public TV service lost its monopoly in the late 80s.
And now Makis tells me there’s a battle to save the last element of
publicly supported broadcasting here. We too are battling to save
the BBC, so we wish you well in your fight to save public service
broadcasting here in Greece.
I’m told there are around 170 private radio and TV stations here in
Greece today, of which, only 10% are regulated. We must all fight
to ensure the highest standards of professional journalism – it is
our duty, if we are to be trusted by the public as the provider of
quality information and news.
As the amount, and speed, with which information is collected and
distributed, we must be able to show that it is the quality of
information, not the quantity, which is important – it is little wonder
that the public does not know where to turn for clear and impartial
I’m no expert when it comes to the media here in Greece – and I
am very keen to hear about your experiences. I know that you face
many of the same problems we too face in the UK. But I firmly
believe that there is an appetite for news here, just as there is back
in my home. I am sure that during your elections last month, and
as the economic crisis spilled on to the streets in February, that
Greek citizens were hungry for as much news as possible – turning
to quality journalists and quality journalism to help them negotiate
their way through difficult and turbulent times.
It has been the same in the UK and Ireland. Where once we had a
strong media to question the politicians, to investigate corruption
and inefficiency, the destruction of our media, by people motivated
by greed and not quality, has left our citizens asking where they
can turn to for fair and unbalanced news.
That is why I am here today. That is why I am saying that we must
defend quality journalism in the digital age.
You do not become a journalist simply because you sit in your
bedroom facing your computer, picking up on political and showbiz
gossip and publishing it as fact.
The best journalists have learned their profession. I started my
career in newspapers in my local newspaper. I reported on crime,
on the local government, on the issues which mattered to the
community I served. I hope I was a voice for that community,
asking the questions of those in power which demanded an
But with so many thousands of experienced journalists now
unemployed, there is a push towards new technology and with it, a new
breed of journalist.
It is less expensive to have a trainee or a student, writing and publishing
online, than it is to have a journalist who has gone through the system,
who understands issues and who knows how to see through the political
It is more attractive to big business, to have a local community, sending
in their own copy and photos – all of it free – than it is to have an
editorial team who can edit, write and create material which is of real
That is not to say there isn’t a place for such local input. We saw this
during the recent Presidential elections in Iran. The oppression of
opposition supporters would not have been seen by the outside world,
had it not been for the instant power of social networking sites such as
But it remains a matter for journalists and editors, to receive material and
provide the expert analysis before publishing or broadcasting. I’m sure it
won’t be long before a blog or a Twitter post, somewhere in the world,
attracts global headlines, and then is revealed as an elaborate hoax. In
fact, it has probably happened already.
The value of journalists and journalism is our ability and experience in
dealing with facts – ensuring that they are removed from opinion – and
reporting them to our readers and listeners.
In a world of Twitter, Facebook and Google, the distinction between fact
and opinion, reportage and hard news, is becoming increasingly blurred.
That is why we have been fighting to preserve the so-called old media.
Not to say that print journalism must be maintained at all costs. No. As I
have said, we must embrace every news medium. But we must also
understand that the new media will not work, unless it retains some of
the skills and knowledge which journalists – and the public – value so
But we must not be elitist. We must not say that quality journalism is at
the expense of a more liberated news-gathering process. The public has
never trusted journalists – such is our association with the political
classes and ruling elite in every society.
For journalists and journalism to remain relevant in the digital age, we
must forge a partnership with those members of the public who are keen
to participate in newsgathering. That is not just about leaving a comment
at the end of an article or feature, but demonstrating that our skills will
help us all to uncover the truth. Professional bloggers are a great
innovation, who can help to unearth the truth and investigate specialist
areas which were once the preserve of well-resourced news
organisations. Indeed, if we work together in this new medium, creating
strong partnerships, we can strengthen journalism in a way which
protects and enhances our democratic structures in a way that has
never been seen before.
But there has to be a commercial market for such a partnership. Our
industry is called the news business for a reason – because it makes
money. There is – and always will be – a huge appetite for information
which is made relevant and accessible, in an age when information,
untamed and undiluted, has never been so readily available.
Some of you may have heard of Rupert Murdoch, I’m guessing??
Murdoch and his News Corp colleagues were instrumental in changing
the face of the media in the UK – during which time he tried to destroy
my union (a process which failed, I’m pleased to say). Now Murdoch is
looking to charge for access to his online publications, such as the Wall
Street Journal and, closer to my home, publications such as The Sun
For those of you who don’t know, The Sun, is the biggest daily tabloid
newspaper in the UK, with a circulation of around seven million copies. It
still has on page 3, pictures of topless women – so perhaps, given the
internet’s obsession with sex and celebrity – he has a chance of
charging for some of its content. Similarly, the Wall Street Journal, with
quality business and specialist reporting, could find a way of charging for
But with so much information out there, would any of us pay a few pence
to access content? We have grown up, happy to pay for our daily
newspapers. In the UK, everyone has to pay around 150 Euro a year in
tax to pay for the BBC and the huge range of services it provide.
But with the BBC and many others providing online content for free, it is
difficult to see how anyone would wish to pay for the privilege in an age
when we have been fed a diet of unrestricted and free internet news
A few weeks ago, new research revealed that only 5% of UK internet
users would pay for online news. But I doubt that it will stop Rupert
Murdoch from trying to stop the boat long after it has set sail.
Even if Murdoch convinced major players in the media market to follow
his lead – and even managed to block Google and other news
aggregators from supplying his content, as he is now trying, there will be
others who look for a market – and benefit from the advertising –
associated with free content.
But quality is something which may attract a price. Quality websites
provide commentary, analysis and opinion by contributors whose skills
are often sought by users for their expertise. There could be a method of
paying for information which adds value to what is already available
online. Although disliked, it is now accepted by many, that we must pay
to download copyrighted music, or films or television. The leap to
specialist news may well happen.
If consumers will pay 2 Euro for the latest Britney Spears song, surely
some will pay a few Cents for access to their favourite columnist. Just as
the technology has changed with regard to pirated songs and films,
there can be little doubt that similar technology will be used by a cartel of
news media publishers in the not too distant future. Not for access to
breaking news, but for specialist knowledge – the kind which only
journalists can provide.
If proprietors such as Murdoch wish to charge for accessing online
content, then it is my hope that it will be because the quality of the
content is high. That is why we continue to fight for quality journalism in
the digital age – because if the digital age is to be a success, then it will
need quality journalists to be at its heart.
Google can repeat the news, it cannot report the news. It cannot analyse
the news or give professional commentary.
So what can we do in this bold new digital age? Well, we must continue
to fight for jobs, for pensions, for decent salaries and to fight for our
industry as it changes in the most fundamental way since the invention
of the telegraph.
That’s why in the UK, we’ve been lobbying parliaments, town councils
and the general public, making them increasingly aware that once our
media is gone, it’s never coming back. The skills and experience cannot
just be thrown away.
We have made it clear, that the profiteering – 30 to 40 per cent returns
on investment each year – are unsustainable in a land where most major
industries are happy for a six or seven per cent profit each year. We are
not the big banks, but the people running our media in the UK have been
just as irresponsible – enjoying the bonuses and big payouts when times
are good, cutting jobs and asking for taxpayers’ help when times are
Our news media businesses remain profitable. But more than that, what
we do is fundamental to a strong local community – crucial to the health
and wealth of society and a functional democracy. That remains the
case whether our work is online, on mobile phones or in the traditional
These days, I am no longer in the newspaper business. I am the PR
manager for the city of Glasgow – and apologies to those who are
translating, if it is difficult to understand my Scottish Accent! But it is
depressing that I can issue a press release and there’s no one left in
newsrooms to ask the important questions. It is frightening that after the
waves of redundancies in newsrooms, that the few young journalists
who are left, do not have the skills or knowledge to question what is
happening in the world around them. That is not the industry we know.
That is not the industry we love.
So what do we do? We fight. Up and down the UK and Ireland, I have
visited picket lines and workplaces that are fighting for their survival.
Journalists are in a fight for their lives and livelihoods.
It’s difficult to hear stories of journalists, tears in their eyes, who face
losing their jobs. It’s heartbreaking to listen to journalists who don’t know
how they will pay their mortgage or feed their kids.
Of course, many of you here today may be in exactly the same position.
Or you may be worried that it will be your turn next. Your pay being cut,
being forced to work longer hours, being asked to provide more and
more stories as your news organisation makes the move online.
The NUJ recently carried out a survey of multi-media newsrooms to find
out what the reality is for journalists working in the digital age. It will be
no surprise to discover that they are working longer hours, with more
responsibility, but no extra pay.
In fact, almost three quarters were working longer hours, with only 7%
being paid more for doing so.
This is not the fault of new technology, but of management who do not
value journalism and content over the quest for further profits. The NUJ
is unashamedly in favour of new media where it enhances good
journalism, we are unashamedly opposed to moves which undermine it.
I was pleased to hear that across Greece, all journalists striked in
support of sacked colleagues in February of this year.
You are fortunate that both here in Macedonia and across your land,
workers will stand united against the threat to our industry.
We are entering a new digital age – but we must not forget that unless
we have a strong union, standing up for quality journalism, then it will be
a digital age, with no real value at all.
Thank you for listening to me – and I wish you all well in the fight to
defend journalism in the years to come.