We are all online hacks now

WE ARE ALL people who work in the "new media", whether we think about ourselves that way or not, Angus Batey told the September London Freelance Branch meeting. If we've contributed words or pictures to a newspaper national or local, or a mag, or TV or radio, our work will have been used online or on WAP phones or whatever. Like it or not, asked or not, legally or not.

It may be tempting to assume that because the articles about dot.bollocks have stopped, it's all gone away. It hasn't.

There may be fewer internet-only publishers around. But there are still some new types of journalism - for example producing newspaper stories that update every hour. And there are still writers being sent out with digital cameras and photographers with notebooks. Training is nonexistent and editing skills are often learned on the job. Copy that at a newspaper might be seen by four or five people is seen by one - where contributors aren't inputting directly into a publishing system with no subs at all. And, of course, the new media have driven all the rights grabs we seen.

The NUJ has, finally, set up an Online Media Joint Council. After what Angus described as "a moribund year" this is doing work - finding out, at last, which existing members works in the new media. A new trainee organiser in the Manchester office is scheduled to spend half her time on this area. And the union is co-operating with BECTU - are web designers more like page subs or theatre set-builders?

There is a success story. A member's query about conditions at the ananova.com operation in Leeds led to 60 people there joining - just in time to negotiate a doubling of their redundancy payments.

The belief that this was bleeding-edge stuff mostly meant that it drew in younger, inexperienced and more vulnerable workers. Some didn't know from trade unions, others didn't realise that they were eligible to join, and yet others had absorbed an individualistic antipathy to them. Perhaps the union needed to be more open to accepting memberships from the kind of people who start out by setting up their own "virtual fanzines".

Jon Rathbone added observations as a member with seven years in the field. He has earned good money. For people who got in early "virtual money" was a problem - payment in stock options based on share offering that never happened. Another problem was "West London yuppie managers being abusive after a powdered lunch".

And on the question of openness of NUJ membership the editor of the Freelance observed that the "cultural" questions were complicated: "We knew punk was dead when fanzine editors started joining the union." Now that the new media were old, exploitation should no longer be based on the illusion of newness. And it was an illusion: in an early instance of online piracy US publishers cabled the entire text of a book back to New York and had a pirate edition on the streets 12 hours later. The aggrieved author? Queen Victoria.

Last modified: 14 September 2002 - © 2002 contributors
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