A vital role for journalists – and how it’s under threat

A vital role for journalists – and how it’s under threat
Two stories have caught my attention in the past few weeks.

The first is of a newsroom coming together to undertake the longest strike at a digital media company to date in order to improve working conditions. The 13-day labour struggle prompted managers at Insider to write their own stories and the editor-in-chief to tear down union fliers in his local neighbourhood.

The second came out of the Financial Times and revelations the founder of one of Britain’s largest hedge funds – Crispin Odey – has evaded allegations of sexual assault for decades. The investigation has since resulted in a loss of confidence in Odey Asset Management and ultimately the breakup of the firm.

The latter shows the importance of journalism in holding the powerful to account. At the same time, the former showcases the struggle the industry is going through, with layoffs continuing to rise.

It is for this very reason these two contrasting stories have struck a symbolic chord – the continued squeeze on employment and working conditions, against an investigation that has sent shockwaves by providing a vehicle for events to be revealed that would have otherwise remained hidden.

Working in PR, journalists are our customers. Of course, we have clients that we serve, but journalists and the relationships we have with them are just as important.

I will be the first to admit that I find a growing number of stories, headlines and even publications questionable at times. But there’s good reason for that, and it’s the dynamic that we can see between the Insider and FT stories that offers a timely reminder of just why journalism is so important and needs to be protected.

But it won’t be easy and will require sweeping structural change across the industry.

Challenging Times

Journalists have had a tough time in recent years.

Figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulations reveal print publications have lost millions of readers over the past two decades, placing tremendous strain on newsrooms. At the same time, digital champions – such as Vice and Buzzfeed – saw their stars rise before descending just as quickly.

The drive for profit amid falling revenue has meant some publications have resorted to churnalism, where journalists are pandering to advertisers, rather than the public. There is less and less space for original, thoughtful journalism, and the focus is on quantity and filling space and getting clicks, rather than quality, all with a downsized newsroom.

These dynamics come full circle when you see the increased criticism of journalists not delivering on their societal role - informing the public and reporting truthfully on events - and growing claims of bias and agenda

Labelling all journalists as biased churnalists is thus overstating things – the FT investigation into Crispin Odey shows that. But it’s not wrong to say that the media, and by extension journalists, are feeling the crunch and are less able to act impartially following decades of cuts, bad strategy and the pursuit of advertising revenue.

But rather than critiquing them further, making their working conditions less than preferable, it’s time we started to think about how we can protect journalists and the profession. A functioning free press is vital to a democracy – the world of journalists is to be applauded, not derided – they work in tough conditions, often with limited resources, and the vast majority have the public good at heart.

But how can a solution be brought about?

Debating the merits of unionising as a way to fight for better pay, fairer conditions and a return of better reporting is perhaps a topic for another blog. But what’s certain is that there is a need for structural change.

That’s not necessarily a nostalgic call for a return to the good old days. But there is surely a better balance to be struck, one that allows journalists the resources they need to make a significant – even vital – contribution to society.

Image: Sam McGhee/Unsplash