On the sustainability of the journalistic profession


Christian Ruggiero* and Achilleas Karadimitriou**

Is contemporary journalism still a factor capable of enhancing the democratic process? If we want to give a positive answer to this question, we must provide ourselves with means of “broad-spectrum” monitoring relating to the state of health of the profession, ideally from a comparative perspective. This is the mission of the “Media for Democracy Monitor”, part of the Euromedia Research Group. It is a cross-national programme of study on the leading media outlets in eighteen countries, European but not only, which derives from the theoretical framework of one of the “fathers” of communication studies, Denis McQuail, incorporating three fundamental dimensions of analysis, relating to the freedom of information, the monitoring function of the media, their role in promoting equality and discussion. Based on each of these dimensions, a number of factors are stirred up, from the interaction of which it is possible to read the major trends in the world of information. On their own, elements such as the level of journalism professionalism, the amount of resources available to the editorial offices, the impact of job insecurity on media operators, provide a snapshot of one of the major issues affecting journalism. The complex mosaic that is formed by taking a step back and observing all these elements, the way they interact with each other, the recurrences and the specificities of each national context, is much more fascinating. It might as well offer deeper answers on the sustainability of the control function exercised by the media, and ultimately on the journalistic profession itself.

Sustainability and Journalism Professionalism: Two sides of the same coin

In media systems worldwide sustainability and journalism professionalism have proved to be two closely interrelated issues. This crucial interconnection has become more apparent than ever over the last decade since journalism, in many parts of the world, has been faced with several unprecedented challenges: the rise of a participatory media culture within a highly fragmented market, plagued by prolonged and deep-rooted economic crises combined with the declining credibility of the audience towards the media industry and its representatives.

This fluid and precarious communication field denotes a world of journalism going through a structural or existential crisis with high-class reporting being the exception rather than the rule. This is primarily reflected in the apparent weakening of investigative journalism culture among the leading news media in several countries. Based on this key finding, as drawn from the 2020 edition of the Media for Democracy Monitor (MDM 2020), media professionals seem to have overlooked that journalism since the beginning of the digital revolution has come to mean much more than just breaking the news to the citizens.

The root of evil lies in the declining financial resources of most of the leading news media organizations coupled with the increasing workload imposed on journalists working under suffocating time frames within understaffed newsrooms. Given this grim reality, there are interesting exceptions of countries which either retain a strong commitment to the watchdog role of journalism as a matter of principle (Sweden, Denmark, UK) or just represent efficient “pockets of resistance” by means of ad hoc resources on investigative reporting (Iceland, Netherlands, Austria) or through the establishment of special subsidy policies (Flanders, Netherlands). A truly alternative source of resistance comes from the other side of the Atlantic and particularly from Chile, where investigative journalism is feasible thanks to freelancers or special companies that undertake in-depth journalistic research on news items subsequently sold to media organizations.

Against this fickle backdrop, the greatest challenge of modern journalism lies in rediscovering its ability to resist any potential trends towards de-professionalization. The resistance towards journalism decline trends at the level of professionalism is a highly demanding task. Journalists by themselves should be engaged actively in counteracting efficiently several internal and external factors acting as a deterrent to the quality of their professional practices. The internal factors, associated with a trend of self-devaluation of journalism role by journalists themselves, require the reflection of news workers on the social value of their profession as the driving force that will urge them to strengthen their commitment to a reborn identity of professionalism. At the same time, journalists should resist pressures, derived from profit-lustful media entrepreneurs and a deregulated media industry serving the model of technological convergence.

Given the current inescapable financial hardships of the leading media organizations worldwide journalists can only safeguard the quality of their work through enriching their training on ethics as well as by reducing the workload intensity (slow journalism). The implementation of the original journalism, including the sustainability of resource-intensive investigative reporting, depends on the ability of journalists to pursue new skills and greater flexibility in news production. In the participatory media environment of the 21st century, journalism profession is in urgent need of a new type of gatekeepers (unlike the “quasi-gatekeepers” emerged by the social media world), characterized by multitasking competencies, a high level of media literacy, respect for the traditional principles of journalism but also endowed by a clear disposition to claim a strong regenerated professional culture.

Risks and probabilities of work flexibility

Since the late 1990s, it has been clear to shrewd sociologists such as Manuel Castells that the rise of the “network economy” represents a turning point for businesses and consumers, but also for workers. The possibilities offered by the new economic and social panorama, in which information and communication technologies play a leading role, would have required the training of creative, flexible and self-employed workers.

Twenty years later, the main achievement of this revolution remains the flexibility of employment rather than work. A rather defined set of employment statuses (part-time, temporary, self-employment, subcontracting) has been absorbed by the labour market of single countries in very different ways, translating alternatively into the engine for the restart of a segment of the labour market or into a feeder of the more traditional work inequalities.

The information sector is an extremely fertile field of study to verify the trends summarised above. A study conducted in Germany, Sweden and the United Kingdom, which provocatively aims to answer the question: “Are journalists today’s coal miners?” highlights the contradiction between the image of a new generation of motivated, flexible and technologically prepared journalists and their demand for a balance between life and work time and a career perspective that is only partly compatible with the pace and workload required by newsrooms that are now operational twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.

These elements emerge very clearly from the analysis of the Media for Democracy Monitor: the freelance journalist’s formula, for example, follows very different development trajectories and sustainability models. It represents an important part of the German, Dutch and Swedish media system, but also of the Italian and Greek one and of those of non-European countries, mapped by the p
roject for the first time, such as Australia, Canada and Chile. It does not appear to be the norm from a contractual point of view in Austria, Finland and Iceland, while the UK even seems to “rediscover” the value of long-term contracts. The variable of “job security” is, however, transversal to this geography: in the face of the fierce battles conducted in the Netherlands to adjust the remuneration of freelancers, in the Italian contractual bouquet this type of employment status is followed first and foremost by the form of the co.co.co., which generated what one of the interviewees called “a generation of information riders”. On the other side of the border, among the countries that make moderate use of the professional figure of the freelancer, appear both the high rate of job security recorded by Austria, a true “best practice” in this field, and the situation of limited protection of the journalists against termination of the contract in relation to changes in ownership or the political orientation of the media that characterises the Icelandic case.

An extremely varied picture, which refers to the need for a multidimensional analysis of the phenomenon, irreducible to any attempt to set solid boundaries to a very liquid object of study.

* Associate Professor, Department of Communication and Social Research, Sapienza University of Rome

** Adjunct Lecturer, Faculty of Communication and Media Studies, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens

(16 dicembre 2020)

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