When is a journalism job not a journalism job? When it’s an ‘administrative’ one. At least, that’s the line Trinity Mirror is taking in its recent job description for its new ‘Multimedia Assistants’. And it’s a description the National Union of Journalists has told SevenStreets they believe is ‘a cynical move to undermine the profession of journalism’ – and is the focus of a formal dispute, set for a hearing next week.
The Multimedia Assistants’ role? To seek out stories from the community – whether women’s institutes, PTA meetings, book groups or preservation trusts. They’ll scour the streets, the minutes, social groups and village halls to find good hyperlocal content. In much the same way as, ooh, a trainee journalist used to do before quantitative easing.
But they’re not journalists, right?
They’re merely ‘responsible for the gathering and preparing of market-focused content’. Preparing is, we understand, writing the content down, getting the facts, laying out news information in paragraph form – but not as a journalist, as an ‘administrator’. Finding stories is, we understand, nothing more than ‘administration’, like filing, or spreadsheets. Not journalism.
And just in case you’re still not clear…
“This is a non-journalistic role but you will be working closely with journalists and you will need to be self-motivated with the flexibility to work on multiple projects and meet a variety of deadlines. A team player you must also enjoy working on your own initiative.” says the advert.
The role, with a starting salary of £13,400 – about the same as a checkout assistant at Tesco (£13,200) – has lead to an official dispute with the NUJ, which sees the carefully worded job description as a way to undermine the union’s bargaining power ‘by stealth’, as NUJ’s Lawrence Shaw tells SevenStreets.
“The Liverpool Chapel is in dispute with the company over this issue,” he says. “These are clearly, by any sensible measure, journalistic roles, not administrative ones. They should simply be called trainee reporters, and Trinity should stop the charade.”
“Trinity Mirror have scrupulously tried to come up with ways to reduce our bargaining power,” Shaw says.
These new roles have been created following a five year period in which Trinity has hemorrhaged many of its writers (full disclosure – I was one years ago), closed titles, and lost many of its fine reporters to other titles.
“What they’re saying is, yes, you can work for the Liverpool Echo, but you can’t be part of the NUJ. It’s a move that undermines the entire profession of journalism when it needs more support, and more investment. This is just deskilling the industry further,” Shaw says, adding that, despite this, the union will recognize these posts as journalistic ones, despite Trinity’s protestations.
Multimedia roles are nothing new – media groups have been trying to tackle new technologies (with varying degrees of success) for the last decade or so. The Echo have too – with dubious video content, blogs (including Peter Guy’s excellent Get Into This blog) and live tweeting of events.
Hyperlocal content is seen as a booster shot to regional press (pulling in local ad revenues, and eyeballs) and, in the US, it’s taken even more of a foothold.
Over there, many local papers use a content production company, Journatic, which in turn pays Philippines-based writers to grab community stories, and knock them into a rough shape, ready to be preened by an editor based in, say, Philadelphia.
The one telling thing about this whole process? The Houston Chronicle’s hyperlocal stories are never written by a local journalist. And the local context and analysis? Gone.
“Journalism will get better if we do it this way. No-one can cover all these small suburbs,” Journatic CEO Brian Timpone says on a recent episode of This American Life. “Daily newspapers can’t afford to use reporters to generate stories. It’s too expensive.”
Timpone says content and data – village minutes and local fetes – will be scooped up and fed to hungry regional titles which, in turn, can sell space to local salons and solicitors online and in print. Readers? Well, they’re hopefully a byproduct.
“Newspapers are going bankrupt,” he says. “We have a solution that helps them get more content, cheaper, without the need for journalists.”
But when you fire local writers with skill and on-the-ground knowledge and hire cheaper ‘administrators’ – what’s next? Will Speke’s school results be filed by a writer in Riga? Don’t bet against it.
When a newspaper’s solution is to cut out the journalists, isn’t it time to blow the whistle on the whole enterprise? Shouldn’t local journalism be about cub reporters delving into local communities, and using their nous to find stories we actually want to read? It’s into this gap that blogs and independent media grow: but Trinity still won’t talk to us.
The backlash has begun in the US – according to the Chicago Tribune ‘readers are tired of barely rewritten press releases’ and of advertorials and restaurant promotions thinly disguised as reviews (imagine that, dear readers).
“Journalists are already doing things differently,” says Shaw. “They’re at the forefront of change. We’re not being luddite. It’s in our nature to embrace new ways to tell our stories. It’s the advertising departments that are stuck, and haven’t moved on.”
“What happens to these Multimedia Assistants when they get promoted? Do they become Senior Multimedia Assistants? Will there be a whole new tier of ‘non-journalist’ jobs at the Echo?”
SevenStreets tried to speak to Trinity’s Liverpool offices, to no avail. So we called their Corporate Communications department in London. No comment there either. So we asked a general question about Trinity’s commitment to supporting (and paying for) local journalism training – as opposed to the unpaid graduates it takes on. Again, no comment.
Maybe that’s why if you search for Multimedia Assistant Liverpool Echo on Trinity’s website, they kindly suggest you must mean ‘Liverpool Echo Obituaries.’ (see pic, which would be funny if it wasn’t so tragically prescient)
Some say Trinity’s empire is falling – as all empires must. That lurid headlines (like the ones above) are its last stand. It cynically believes stabbings are its only currency when genuine community stories that connect us all (written by someone who feels part of the news team) will always win out. That’s where the future lies. There are good writers in Old Hall Street – intelligent arts coverage (in The Post, at least) and incisive business analysis. But there’s a reluctance to grasp two self evident truths. We don’t pay for our news anymore (rightly or wrongly), and independent media is rapidly winning our metropolitan mindshare.
Whatever happens in the next – crucial – five years engaging, opinionated and knowledgeable local writing will be more important than ever before, and it needs investment more than ever. But this latest move sees Trinity still shuffling the deck chairs. Searching for ‘administrative multimedia assistants’, rather than examining home truths.
And it doesn’t take a journalist to sniff out that story.