The NUJ on “witness contributors”

The National Union of Journalists has launched it’s Code of Conduct for “witness contributors”, as the NUJ likes to call “citizen journalists”.

Jeff Jarvis (among others) says it’s a pretty silly document. I’m inclined to agree with his assessment that the “real goal is to protect NUJ jobs and to try to maintain a separation between the ‘professionals’ and the rest.”

Journalism is not — or should not be — an exclusive profession — it is the professional excercise of a right of citizenship. “Citizen journalism” is a redundancy, and I’d prefer a journalist citizenry.

I’m reminded of the Jack Schafer’s column from Slate that I read this weekend:

… the next entrenched “guild” that technology is likely to bulldoze is the “newspaper guild.” I’m not speaking of the union of the same name, but of those who work in the news business—reporters, editors, publishers, radio and TV broadcasters, etc.

Like the long-gone typesetters, today’s newspaper guild members believe that their job is somehow their “property,” and that no amateur can step in to perform their difficult and arduous tasks. On one level, they’re right. John Q. Blogger can’t fly to Baghdad or Bosnia and do the work of a John F. Burns. But what a lot of guild members miss is that not everybody wants to read John F. Burns, not everybody who wants to read about Baghdad is going to demand coverage of the quality he produces, and not everybody wants Baghdad coverage, period. If you loosely define journalism as words and graphics about current events deliverable on tight deadline to a mass audience, the price of entry into the craft has dropped to a few hundred dollars. …

I’m not about to predict what the collapsing cost of media creation will ultimately do to the news business, if only because my track record at prophesy is terrible. But this much I know: The newspaper guild (again, reporters, editors, publishers) can’t compete by adding a few blogs here, blogging up coverage over there, and setting up “comment” sections. If newspapers, magazines, and broadcasters don’t produce spectacular news coverage no blogger can match, they have no right to survive.

But instead of improving their product by deploying technology bloggers can’t afford (yet), newspapers are devolving. Many are cutting staff. Daily newspapers are growing smaller and uglier, with no paper looking anywhere near as lovely as Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World from the late 1800s. …

At the Guardian’s citzen journalism debate the other day, Simon Waldman said traditional news organisations have to figure out a way to remain relevant in a world where millions of people share content that journalists used to have a monopoly on gathering, aggregating and distributing:

All of this is going to happen regardless of whether anyone round this table thinks it is a good idea or not. All of those photos will go onto weblog or flickr. This is happening, there is no resistance to it.

If we try to block it or resist it or say it is not right, it will feel like we are operating on the hard shoulder of the motorway.

Indeeed. Camera phones are not going to go away. People are not going to stop sending their photos in to the BBC and the Guardian without expecting a fee. The genie is out of the bottle and the NUJ needs to help come up with answers for how professional journalists, like their employers, can remain integral to the 21st-century media environment. This is not a good start.

Update: Adam Christie responds to Emily Bell’s critique of the code:

If publishers want to undermine their credibility with a “Wiki” approach, then they are free to do so. Like so much blogging, the concept is already discredited and does not deserve to be taken seriously. Publishers and editors who mistakenly believe a future lies with “product” that no one can believe, or should believe, have a right to a slow and painful death, it is just a pity that we have to be taken along with them.

I came away from last week’s Roundtable event feeling very old. Apart from Bill Hagerty, I think I may well have been the oldest there. The largely young contingent representing The Guardian did not seem to have seen a broader picture, or the “fanzine revolution” of the 70s, when Letraset and cheap photocopying caused many similar concerns as those we are seeing today. Their (lack of ) appreciation of history and their proximity to what they are doing worries me.

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