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#DM18: Future of the media

Keith Murray addresses DM

Keith Murray addresses DM  -  © Paul Herrmann

20 April 2018

Motion four on the delegate meeting agenda opened the future of the media debate at conference and started by highlighting the local democracy reporters scheme.

Keith Murray from the Cambridge branch said the scheme was paying its reporters £6,000 less than their colleagues sitting next to them in the same newsroom. As well as this pay disparity, the companies awarded the contracts are also cutting their own staff.

The NUJ had demanded that the BBC, as the body responsible for oversight of the scheme, ensured the contractors could not continue to cut staff when they were given additional resources via the scheme but so far the BBC had refused to agree to the union's request, said Keith.

Pierre Vicary, from the BBC World Service, seconded the motion and said public funds should only be used for public services. It was wrong for the local democracy reporters scheme to take resources from the BBC licence fee and it was wrong that this money was being siphon off.

Paul Breeden from the Bristol branch pointed out the union initially expected the scheme's reporters to cover councils and local democracy but they had been given the much wider remit of covering public services, and this included every service – from schools to the local police.

The scheme in practice seemed to be replacing the work other reporters had been doing, and this was a worrying development. There is also widespread concern that the scheme could be used to replace existing jobs.

DM 2018

Kathryn Johnston, right, from the Belfast branch called for the scheme to be more open and transparent in terms of contracts awarded in Northern Ireland. She asked the union to scrutinise the operation of the local democracy reporters scheme in specific localities and in general.

The union delegate meeting voted in support of the motion which instructed the NEC to:

  • prioritise recruitment and organising of the reporters working as part of the scheme;
  • launch an investigation into the impact of the scheme and how its effect differs in Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland;
  • launch a campaign focused on the areas where there is a journalistic deficit;
  • share example of best practice when the scheme shows a benefit;
  • approach the BBC to seek to ensure that large regional publishers do not exercise undue control over the reporters, and all eligible organisations (including websites, hyperlocal news sources, broadcasters or other responsible outlets) have an effective and proportionate influence over the day-to-day running of the scheme.

Joyce McMillan, from the Edinburgh freelance branch, spoke in favour of motion six, which focused on the different funding models now being pursued by NUJ members, especially freelance members, as ways of making a living from journalism. Joyce said the media landscape was changing rapidly and the union needed to research these funding models and use this information to support and advise members and to inform the development of NUJ training.

Models being used in journalism included crowd-funding, subscriptions, and joint projects between consortia of investigative journalists and larger organisations in the media and beyond.

Motion six was agreed by the delegate meeting and it instructs the NUJ to commission a research project, possibly in collaboration with an academic institution, into the range of business models used to sustain journalism; the union must also publicise the results of the survey and hold at least one national conference, or a series of regional events, to reflect on the research produced.

Composite B (covering motions 7, 8 and 9) focused on the new co-operative ownership models that can be used when local newspapers are threatened with closure or severe editorial cuts and the motion referred to the example of the 59 Scottish local titles that have been designated as "sub-core" by Johnston Press.

DM 2018

Claire Sawers, right, from the Edinburgh freelance branch spoke to the motion and emphasised the importance of new co-operative models such as the Bristol Cable in sustaining democratic accountability when there had been year-on-year job losses and title closures. She called on the union to build on the existing local news matters campaign and stressed that commercial media models were becoming increasingly problematic.

Nick McGowan-Lowe seconded the motion as the NEC representative and called for the union to support the bold methods of ownership that allowed local titles to become community assets and the cornerstone of local accountability. He said existing schemes had already proven to work in terms of saving titles and jobs and the union was in a unique position to bring together this knowledge and experience.

First-time delegate Francis Clarke from the Birmingham and Coventry branch said the composite would benefit NUJ members and that co-operative models offered a more sustainable path for the long-term survival of journalism.

Composite B was agreed by the delegate meeting and it instructed the union to initiate a programme of work on co-operative ownership in journalism which should include:

  • the commissioning of research into successful examples of co-operative ownership models such as the Bristol Cable, the Ferret, and the West Highland Free Press, with a view to making them more widely understood;
  • the provision of systematic support and information for groups of members exploring the possibilities of forming co-operatives to take over threatened titles, or launch new ones;
  • working with the NUJ parliamentary group to explore all the avenues available to secure further support for media co-operatives.

Motion 10 was tabled by the Oxford branch and congratulated all members who took part in the first local news matters week of action in spring 2017. Penny Kiley from the branch spoke to the motion and said it was necessary to take a collective stance to defend news and this should be a top priority for the NUJ.

Penny explained that her branch used the campaign to organise locally and to celebrate the local news infrastructure in Oxford. She said it felt good to be part of a national campaign that was able to generate support from both politicians and the public.

Michael Foley from the Dublin branch also spoke to the motion and emphasised the ownership of local newspapers was in crisis in Ireland and pointed out that Independent News and Media (INM) had too much control over the industry because it owned huge amounts of the local media.

Motion 10 was agreed and instructs the union to plan for another local news matters week of action and to ensure that the concentration of media ownership and control is highlighted as part of this campaign.

DM 2018Motion 11 was proposed by the PR and Communications branch and Charlie Harkness, left, spoke in favour of motion. He started by saying that this was the first time he had address conference as a branch delegate since 1974 then described a hyperlocal scheme in his own community that had helped to address the local news deficit.  

First-time speaker, Mark Johnson from the Merseyside branch, welcomed the role of activists in lobbying for investment in the sector. Delegates voted in favour of the motion and welcomed the work done by Cardiff University's Centre for Community Journalism in supporting and bringing together more than 400 hyperlocals. The motion instructed the union to explore how it could support the centre and its hyperlocal network. 

Motion 12 was moved by Dave Toomer from the Manchester and Salford branch. He said the closure of the 160-year-old Oldham Chronicle was a huge shock to the community and to NUJ members who worked there.

The shutdown was one on a depressingly long list of title closures throughout the UK and in Manchester some of the most deprived communities had seen their local newspaper titles cut. Big companies such as Trinity Mirror had been withdrawing from local communities and were being rewarded with resources via the BBC local democracy scheme. New community media organisations were now emerging and the union should support The Media Fund, he added.

NEC member, Tim Lezard, seconded the motion and explained that The Media Fund was an initiative that raised money to fund independent media organisations and could help to circumvent the power of the corporate media. He added that the fund's eligibility required organisations to abide by the NUJ code of conduct and recognise trade unions.

Composite C (covering motions 13, 14, 15 and 16) was moved by Chris Morley, below, as the Trinity Mirror group chapel representative.

The motion highlights the demands media companies makes on journalists to build a digital audience and hit ever-increasing digital targets while cutting journalistic staff. The clickbait business model had enabled media companies to cut costs by running generic material on multiple websites at the expense of distinctive local stories, Chris said.

Journalists who stood up for public interest journalism in their newsrooms had been marginalised and in some cases silenced by redundancy and bullying.

DM 2018NUJ members had been subjected to a decade-long painful experiment to switch journalism from newspapers to online and the process had cost thousands of jobs, he stressed. Newsroom staffing was about a quarter of what it was in 2007 and the loss of jobs had an impact on quality and media companies had shed a huge amount of experience and talent.

The non-stop rounds of redundancies had had a deeply corrosive impact on journalism – many NUJ members were now voting with their feet and giving up on the industry entirely.

Chris added that the union must continue to stand up for journalism, and that it was up to the NUJ to keep the flame of quality journalism alive. We must use our own resources to bolster what our members wanted to produce - original and quality journalism.

Seconding the motion, Martin Shipton from the Cardiff and south east Wales branch said one of the disturbing aspects in the move to digital-first journalism was the issue of quality and the kind of journalism that was prioritised. Journalists were being encouraged to produce work promoting corporate brands and this meant the chances of genuinely informing the public were now under threat.

Mike Simons from the London magazine branch and first-time delegate to conference emphasised the situation was not a battle between digital journalists vs traditional journalism. He called on the NUJ to recruit digital journalists and to increase the union's collective power in all workplaces.

The conference passed the motion and instructed the NEC to institute a campaign to showcase the excellent work created by NUJ members and highlight the key role that quality public interest journalism plays across all platforms in safeguarding democracy and representing communities. The campaign should seek out partners and allies in local communities, media, trade unions, political parties and business, conference decided.

DM 2018Motion 17 was moved by Paul Breeden, right, from the Bristol branch and concentrated on local court reporting. Paul said that, when he started in journalism 30 years ago, he spent a lot of time in courts and the NUJ now needed to look at the court reporting deficit.

The conference agreed to support the motion and instructed the NEC to conduct a survey of NUJ members to establish the extent of court reporting, or lack of it, across the media and to encourage journalism training courses to promote the importance of court reporting in the public interest.

The last motion in this section of the delegate meeting, motion 19, centred on artificial intelligence. New media representative, Christina Zaba, proposed the motion and said the late Stephen Hawking had warned that automation, known as artificial intelligence, could replace humanity.

She said that, scare stories aside, he did have a point. Some media companies, including Associated Press, were already producing computer-generated stories funded by Google. Christina said this could be a potential systemic change in the media industry and the NUJ needed to know what was happening and what could be done about it.

The motion seconder, Donnacha DeLong, called on the union to look closely at increasing automation in what was traditional reporting roles. Jobs that journalists used to do were already being replaced by computers and automation was happening now. Automation could be positive, but that it should not be used to get rid of journalists and quality journalism.

Motion 19 was agreed by the delegate meeting which instructed the new media council to commission a report before the end of 2018 to investigate the impact of artificial intelligence on journalism and how jobs could be protected.  

* All photos: Paul Herrmann

Tags: , dm2018, #DM18, local democracy reporters, bbc, johnston press, Bristol Cable, ferret, West Highland Free Press, co-operatives, local news matters week, Independent News and Media, Centre for Community Journalism, Oldham Chronicle, The Media Fund, clickbait, cuts, redundancies, court reporting, artificial intelligence, robot journalism