NUJ: Forget The Customers, and They'll Forget You

Adam Tinworth
Adam Tinworth

Well, I’d like to suggest that, if a union is meant to represent its members, than the NUJ got it exactly right. It’s showing exactly the same form of fear, uncertainty and doubt that many journalists are expressing right now. Truth be told, in my experience, most journalists have spent very little time interacting with what we call social media. They’re working on second-hand knowledge, often derived from the sensationalist and inaccurate reports that many of our national newspapers carried about blogging and the like a few years back, before their management teams got all enthused by the idea. Frankly, it’s hard to blame them. Most journalists are busy getting their publications or programmes out, and have precious little spare time to investigate the new media.

However, there’s a deeper problem at work here, too. It’s becoming all too apparent that many journalists are too in love with [particular forms of the media](, rather than the process of providing reporting to readers. It’s not just that they don’t have time to investigate alternative media, they actively don’t want to. They want to be print journalists, or TV journalists or radio journalists. They have no interest in this new, blended and mashed-up world of multi-media journalism. And they’re quite prepared to stick their collective heads in the sand as long as they can carry on doing what they’re doing now. 
The horrible truth is that many journalists have a slight disdain for their readers, seeing them as a necessary evil to allow the noble hack to pursue whatever type of reporting he wants to. When I took on my current role a former colleague asked me to explain blogging. When I got to the bit about comments and interacting, she stopped me and asked if that meant people could directly comment on what she’d written in public. “Yes,” I replied. 
“Oh, no,” she said. “I don’t think I want that.”
That attitude worked in an age when access to publishing tools was scare. It falls apart horribly in an age when anyone can publish. Now, it’s not fair to characterise all journalists in this way. Many are embracing the changes that technology brings with both arms, and I have the distinct pleasure of working alongside many such people. But, based on the articles in Journalist, the backbone of people involved in creating the report seem to have been exactly of that type. 
On my way to have a coffee with [Graham]( last week, I went through the issue of Journalist in question and highlighted all the references to readers/audience/consumers that were in it. In five pages of coverage I found three and a half mentions (the half was a rather disparaging aside to “illogical markets” – with the implication that “illogical” means “behaves in ways journalists don’t like”). Most of references were negative, bar [Donnacha De Long](‘s reference to readers feedback being a good thing. Shame he had to ruin it by proceeding to erect a straw man by suggesting that reader feedback is being promoted as a replacement for journalism. 
Perhaps this was inevitable. After all, the existence of unions is predicated on a struggle between employees and management. But at a time of profound technological change which is reshaping the environment for both halves of that struggle, so so marginalise the third, and most powerful, force in the debate, the consumer, is frankly stupid. 
Now, let’s be fair to the NUJ. This is just an extract from a coming report. Perhaps we’ll see a little less of the worst excesses of tabloid journalism and a little more intelligent analysis in the finished report. But if we don’t, if the report doesn’t put the needs of the public we write for and how we can best serve them in the multi-media age, then it is an anachronistic relic before it’s even published. And if that’s the case, the real discussion on the future of journalism [will happen elsewhere](
And, just like the postal workers, we deserve to be swept away by the tides of change if we can’t keep out focus on the people we serve: our customers. 

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Adam is a lecturer, trainer and writer. He's been a blogger for over 20 years, and a journalist for more than 30. He lectures on audience strategy and engagement at City, University of London.