European unions advocate entrepreneurial journalism to beat austerity

Mette Schmidt Rasmussen (far right) explains how the Danish Journalists Union recruits students

The biggest threats to professional journalism across Europe are: competition from non-journalists, threats to authors’ rights and the ageing profile of practitioners.  These were among the findings of a survey of 62 journalists’ unions from across Europe that were presented at a seminar in Vienna on 20 March.

The research – Confronting Austerity, Financial And Employment Models In Journalism In Times Of Crisis – revealed an enormously varied response to the media’s recent travails.

In many former Warsaw Pact countries, for example, trades union organisation is in its infancy and has achieved almost no industrial traction.  “There is little understanding of trades unions in Georgia, since the country has no such culture”, according to IAGJ, the nascent journalists’ organisation in the country.  By contrast, in Austria, where 95% of all workers are covered by collective agreements, a new deal between media employers and unions has just been signed that covers online journalists for the first time.

Some of the French journalists unions are skeptical about even organising journalists other than those who are employed, and traditional freelances.  By contrast, unions such as those in the Netherlands and the UK provide specialist training for members who wish to become “entrepreneurial journalists”.

The challenges of this route were highlighted by Professor Jane Singer of London’s City University.  Her study of entrepreneurial journalists highlights the challenges inherent in this type of work.  “The skills of understanding your audience, finding advertisers and thinking about journalism as a business model are not just difficult for many journalists, they are areas of expertise that most of them have almost deliberately not give any consideration, up until now,” she said.

Successful models considered by meeting included a football blog that spawned a best-selling book, Peter Jukes crowd-sourced funding of the ‘News International’ trial and, David Parkin’s thebusinessdesk.com.

The seminar – which was organised by the European Journalists Federation (EFJ) – also highlighted fault lines among journalism advocates – not least on the subject of Google.  “Google is pushing out other media, it is already taking 90% of the advertising revenue and it will destroy our democracy”, said Gerald Grunberger, General Secretary of Verband Osterreichischer Zeitungen (the Austrian Newspaper Association – which represents media employers).  His sentiment was approved by Martine Simonis of the Belgian Association des Journalistes Professionnels, in whose country a recent legal action settlement now governs how Google lists stories from that country’s papers.

Participants from other countries questioned this approach.  “Has the Belgian slaying of the Google monster led to a renaissance of traditional media in that country”, asked one participant from the National Union of Journalists in Britain and Ireland.  “No”, was the Belgian’s answer.

Other initiatives mentioned during the seminar included: the training academy for continuing professional development run by the Dutch Union, NVJ; paid student recruiters who sign up nearly all relevant students at the three Danish universities where journalism is taught; and, an ongoing suite of training webinars provided for the German union DJV for its members.

Several unions run web-based services to help freelances to market their services; in Norway and Sweden specific training is provided to help staffers become self-employed; and in the Netherlands NJV offers psychological testing to try gauge journalists’ aptitudinal suitability for freelancing.

Closing the seminar, EFJ President Mogens Blicher Bjerregård summed up its sentiments:  “Innovation in journalism goes hand in hand with new business models. Freelancers should be the driving force of the new business models that help create more jobs, more flexibility and more security in the future of journalism.”

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