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The impact of digital technology on media workers: Life has completely changed

Digital technologies have transformed the media industries for better and for worse, but how can journalists win the battles against layoffs, declining wages, and stress? Collective action and the reaffirmation of journalistic skill provide a big part of the answer.

This conference was a tremendous and long-overdue opportunity to unite knowledge workers of all kinds. Media workers and university professors and other culture workers need to work together because no one else can or will do what is needed.

There is no white knight on the horizon, no one waiting to ride in and solve the many issues of media transformation, value for content or the infinite work expectations created by digital technology.

This is an on-the-ground review of what has taken place in the so-called ‘digital revolution’ in my industry, the media industry.

We have lots of cool tools now. We file stories on our blackberries from inside courts, from inside hearing rooms – from anywhere. We have cell phone cameras and video. We use Twitter and Facebook to track down newsmakers or people who know newsmakers.

We can edit video on our desktops – in fact video is digitized so everyone in a newsroom has all the video on their desktops (when the server is working). We use services such as ‘Coveritlive’ to do press conferences via cyberspace – there is no longer even a need to go to the conference itself.

But the very technology that has given us cool tools has had significant side-effects. I’ve grouped them as follows: 1) the downward pressure on job numbers; 2) the downward pressure on wages; 3) the stress factor… or feeding the ‘need for speed’; and 4) the effect on collective power.

The downward pressure on job numbers

First the obvious: All this digitization has meant a move away from equipment-based jobs. Audio and video editing can be done on a reporter’s or producer’s desktop. Videotape no longer requires lighting or sound technicians. A TV studio can be replaced by a big desktop set up known as Parkervision, which needs just one director/switcher; the rest is automated.

The fact that digital equipment is easier to use has led to new expectations of how we work, and blurred job titles and job descriptions.

There are producer/editors (one employer, S-Vox, calls them Preditors), and video-journalists at CBC, and whether or not their actual job titles have changed, the fact is that most media employees are doing a wide range of technical tasks in addition to other primary functions.

For example, reporters at Canadian Press are expected to file copy, then do a voice report for radio clients, and many shoot video too. Sometimes they do online work after that. The growth in online departments hasn’t made up for the huge losses of more traditional work.

Citizen journalism has allowed the numbers of reporters and photographers to be lower. It may not have directly led to layoffs but it’s been an enabler of layoffs. The growth in numbers of amateur columnists and opinion writers is staggering.

And finally, and possibly most importantly, the digital revolution prompted another disastrous series of events in journalism: it fuelled the great rush to media convergence – those big conglomerates that are now coming apart. Media convergence has been the ‘holy grail’ for media owners since the 90s, but it was never about improving content

Media managers smelled money in the idea that you could cross-promote between TV, newspaper and online properties, so they rushed to own properties on all platforms.

The problem is that every time one company bought a newspaper or TV station, the first thing they did was lay off people to pay for it. T

his approach has been the vicious cycle of the past decade. It has led to three big companies owning all media in Canada, major layoffs exacerbated by the October 2008 crash, a stripping of local news operations for the most part, centralization of work and one of the three owners in bankruptcy protection.

The end result? Huge drops in the number of reporters actually covering news. The Globe and Mail now only has one reporter at the Ontario legislature; it used to have five or six.

Competitor Quebec newspapers are doing deals with one another: one will cover Ottawa, the other staffs Quebec City. CBC and the National Post (strange bedfellows) are sharing sports and business content. Here in London, the Free Press used to have a newsroom staff of about 130, but now it’s in the 30s.

It’s like that everywhere. So what are the consequences? Only Tier One stories are done: the obvious stuff, the event, the major news conference, the disaster. Anything that requires digging of any type is very difficult when staffing is so low.

When you only have a handful of daily reporters, you assign them stories that can be completed in a day, preferably less. So environment, education, city hall – the stories that take longer and some risk on the part of a reporter acting on a tip or a hunch – they are all at risk here. And no one notices because they think that because there are so many online sources and blogs and 24/7 channels that there’s more news. There’s not more news…just more sources of the same news. And lots of opinion

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