Posted in Media, Opinion

I don’t want to be a professional journalist

Members of the Fédération professionelle des journalistes du Québec are being asked to vote today until Thursday on a proposition to establish the “title” of “professional journalist”, in an effort to improve journalists’ working conditions and give them more power to maintain their integrity.

The goal is a laudable one. But here’s why they should vote “no”:

When the FPJQ first decided to consider this idea in the fall, I wrote a blog post panning the idea. I picked apart the argument for creating a professional journalist status, as well as the supposed perks having such a status would give people. I also criticized the examples given of France and Belgium, where such statuses exist but whose media environments aren’t nearly the same as ours.

My primary concern wasn’t so much that journalists were getting more rights, but that these rights would be given only to those people deemed worthy of them.

Journalism has existed as we know it for decades without needing any type of formal accreditation system. So, I asked, why should we establish one now? What problem is it solving?

Still, because a big study on the issue hadn’t been released, I held off on a final judgment. Maybe it would convince me that I’d been wrong, that the perceived disadvantages of such an accreditation system would be vastly outweighed by the positives.

The famous report (PDF) from Dominique Payette came out in January.

I remain unconvinced.

Is this necessary?

It’s very clear from the material being shared with members that the FPJQ wants people to vote yes. There’s no effort at balance in the arguments here. No space given to the possible downsides of separating “professional” journalists from non-professional ones.

The Payette report into the state of journalism is also heavily biased in favour of this system.

Payette’s argument is that convergence (read: Quebecor) and the ease with which people can share information have had a detrimental effect on journalism, and establishing a professional title (though not necessarily an order like we have for doctors or lawyers) would somehow help fix this problem.

Payette makes her case based on a statement early on in the report:

Depuis quelques années, on observe au Québec une réduction du nombre de producteurs d’informations originales d’intérêt public, et ce, malgré la multiplication des plateformes de diffusion.

No source is provided for this statement, nor is it made clear who is doing the observing here. Yes, many newsrooms are smaller than they once were. But we also have many more newsrooms than we used to have, and lots of people are using different forms of media to get their message across. Is there really less original news of a public interest being produced? Has someone studied this to see if it’s actually the case?

Payette’s report notes that “l’information d’intérêt public est fragilisée par le développement de médias spécialisés ou de « niche »”, as if the creation of more specialized news sources is somehow a bad thing. I would argue the opposite, that instead of general-interest journalists learning the basics of an issue and giving a simplistic (and potentially wrong) explanation of it to the public, we now have experts in various fields willing to give in-depth analysis of issues.

Whether those experts are “journalists” is a good question.

The Internet and changing consumption habits have radically changed journalism. In some cases for the better, in some cases for the worse. That’s change, and we have to change with it.

But despite all the fretting about how journalists are being laid off and media empires are no longer what they once were, there’s little justification in the material I’ve read for the establishment of a massive bureaucracy that won’t actually regulate much.

Recommendations hard to swallow

Where Payette’s report gets really scary is in some of its recommendations. As I said in the previous post, some of the ideas for benefits of the professional journalist status sound good but should be applied to everyone.

  • The protection of sources, for example, should apply to anyone whose protection of a source is for a journalistic reason, not just someone who has a card saying they’re a journalist.
  • Preferential treatment for access to information requests would make a lot of journalists happy, but would hurt those who don’t have journalist status and want to get information. In many cases, non-journalists making access to information requests want to get data on themselves or a family member, and their needs are much more important to them than a journalist’s curiosity. And, of course, there are cases that gum up the system that come from journalists themselves. Quebecor’s massive access dump on the CBC, for instance, would now be given preferential treatment and make the problem even worse. (Thankfully, a suggestion that journalists’ A-to-I requests all be free of charge has been dropped.)

Then there are the recommendations that are just crazy:

  • Allowing journalists to leave work and take full paid leave of up to a year because they don’t believe their working conditions allow them to be fully ethical is just asking for years of litigation.
  • Restricting government advertising to Quebec Press Council members would create all sorts of problems. Could governments no longer advertise on billboards or on Métrovision or on specialty channels because they aren’t run by people who employ journalists?
  • Changing the law to prevent anyone who has been libelled from seeking any damages from media who follow standard policies about corrections gives those media less of an incentive to stop libelling people. I’m not suggesting that people should be able to sue for millions because of what’s written in the paper about them, but people who are wronged by the media (for example, being accused of a crime when they haven’t even been charged) deserve compensation.
  • Setting up a 1-800 number for the Quebec Press Council so people can get ethics advice sounds like a really stupid idea and a giant waste of money.
  • Requiring all professional journalists to pass a French language test and get regular French language training not only ignores the fact that that not all journalism in Quebec is done in French, but it also sounds like its goal is more about politics than it is about journalism. (The Suburban clearly wasn’t happy with this suggestion.) The report makes a case that language skills are vital to proper communication (though I don’t think too many people are failing to be informed because of journalists’ quality of French), but there are no similar recommendations for other skills journalists should have, like math, basic science or history.

The FPJQ’s vote isn’t necessarily to accept all the recommendations of the report, but this entire project is based on that report, and the association hasn’t rejected any of the ideas above.

The Payette report isn’t all bad. There are some decent recommendations here:

  • Allow freelance journalists to negotiate on a level playing field and ensure their contracts have a minimum standard
  • Allow journalists to represent themselves at access to information hearings, as non-journalists are allowed to do
  • Increase support for small regional independent media (through government handouts or other measures)
  • Having the government follow an open data policy and put raw data online as much as possible
  • Forcing municipalities to publish publicly-accessible documents online and provide adequate public notice of council meetings and their agendas

But none of these in any way require the establishment of a title of professional journalist.

Better or worse for new media

Some bloggers and independent journalists are praising the idea, thinking they will improve their working conditions. Nathalie Collard of La Presse went down to South by Southwest and concluded her vision of the media universe contrasted radically with the visions of young media entrepreneurs.

Criticism from journalists has unfortunately been very little. Most are quiet about it, perhaps unsure of their opinions. Some support the idea (like Le Soleil’s Pierre-Paul Noreau). Some hate it (like The Suburban and The Gazette – which makes it seem as if there’s a language divide here, but Voir’s Jérôme Lussier is critical too). Some don’t think this has been properly thought out. Le Devoir’s Josée Boileau asks the simple question: then what?

That’s a big question. The reports and recommendations kind of skip over the most important question of why this is even necessary, preferring to spend most of their time discussing how it would work (and even then, many of the not-unimportant details are left until later).

Some make a false comparison between independent journalists and artists. But this proposal wouldn’t establish a union for journalists, and artists don’t have a title or the same kind of ethics code that would be so vital for journalists.

Conflict of interest

The FPJQ is obviously in favour of this project, because it would give a legal status to the federation. It says people wouldn’t have to be members of the FPJQ to get official journalist status, but only members could elect FPJQ executives who decide who sits on the council that decides who can become a journalist.

The Quebec Press Council, a separate body whose membership is voluntary and whose powers are practically non-existent, also embraces Payette’s report. That might have something to do with the six-figure government handouts she wants the council to receive.

Judging from the fact that a preliminary proposal was approved unanimously at the FPJQ’s annual meeting, it’s likely this vote will also pass with a huge margin. Only FPJQ members are allowed to vote (and I’m not one of them), even though the decision – if it moves the government to action – would affect every journalist working in Quebec.

Then again, as far as this blog is concerned, whether I’m really a journalist could be up for debate soon.

UPDATE (April 6): Nathalie Collard has a letter from Le Devoir’s Louis-Gilles Francoeur saying he’s voting against this idea, not because he opposes having the title of “professional journalist”, but because he opposes having the FPJQ (as opposed to the press council) be the one to administer it.

UPDATE (Nov. 16): Disagreements over who should administer this scheme has resulted in the FPJQ being less than enthusiastic, and could mean abandoning the project.

18 thoughts on “I don’t want to be a professional journalist

  1. Pascal Lapointe

    But we also have many more newsrooms than we used to have, and lots of people are using different forms of media to get their message across.

    Except that almost all those new sources are underpaid or not paid at all. Not really some secure future there…

    Your analysis is good, but you’re forgetting the fundamental economic element. Investigative journalism, regional journalism, and some parts of specialized journalism, are disappearing from view (except when not-paid bloggers are doing it for free), because they are not profitable. Consequently, freelance journalism are paid the 1970′s fees. Editors who are in this business only for the money will always continue to act that way, except if they feel a little bit of a pressure to play some kind of “public service”. And this is one thing this status thing would allow. Maybe the most important thing, even if it is not labelled this way.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Investigative journalism, regional journalism, and some parts of specialized journalism, are disappearing from view (except when not-paid bloggers are doing it for free), because they are not profitable.

      I don’t disagree with this. Obviously things that aren’t profitable are going to suffer in such an environment. (Though I’d argue that junk news – the kind of stuff a reporter can bang together from a press release in five minutes – isn’t very profitable either.)

      Consequently, freelance journalism are paid the 1970′s fees. Editors who are in this business only for the money will always continue to act that way, except if they feel a little bit of a pressure to play some kind of “public service”. And this is one thing this status thing would allow.

      I find no evidence that establishing a professional journalist status will cause freelance rates to go up. There’s no collective bargaining involved. Payette’s report calls for establishing minimum standards for freelance contracts (in terms of copyright, for instance), which I’m all for. But that doesn’t require establishing a journalist status.

      I think one of the biggest problems about this project is that its proponents think it will solve problems based on evidence that sounds like it’s based on nothing but a lot of wishful thinking.

      Reply
      1. Pascal Lapointe

        I find no evidence that establishing a professional journalist status will cause freelance rates to go up.

        Well, if you’re asking for an absolute proof, unless I find where I parked my time travel machine, nobody will be able to give it for you. :-)

        But the one thing we can agree on is that NONE of the traditional ways, in the last 30 or 40 years, have been able to help the freelancers win better fees.

        There’s no collective bargaining involved. Payette’s report calls for establishing minimum standards for freelance contracts (in terms of copyright, for instance), which I’m all for. But that doesn’t require establishing a journalist status.

        In a way yes it does. We know that the only way editors will bargain with freelancers is if they have an incentive to do it. And that incentive would be included in the status thing: hire more journalists, and you will receive some candy. But, I agree with you, with that incentive should ALSO come some provision establishing minimal rate for “statutory” journalists (just like artists, TV writers, and all TV-movie people, already have).

        Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          But the one thing we can agree on is that NONE of the traditional ways, in the last 30 or 40 years, have been able to help the freelancers win better fees.

          That’s all the more reason to think this method won’t work. Freelance rates are a simple problem of supply and demand. This won’t change that.

          And that incentive would be included in the status thing: hire more journalists, and you will receive some candy. But, I agree with you, with that incentive should ALSO come some provision establishing minimal rate for “statutory” journalists

          And so non-”statutory” journalists would still get screwed in freelance rates? Even if we establish that withholding government advertising is an appropriate way to ensure that “professional” journalists are hired, I think we’ll find out very quickly that many small papers will sooner do without the government advertising if the increased cost of freelancing makes it unprofitable for them.

          Larger papers will likely find some loophole in the law so their business remains status quo.

          Freelance journalists are treating the journalist status as some sort of union drive that will guarantee vastly improved working conditions for freelancers. I think that’s wishful thinking.

          Reply
          1. Alex H

            Freelance picture / video rates are effectively zero, because many (especially QMI) have moved to a “user submitted” method rather than even bothering to pay freelancers. Instead of buying images or video from a freelancer on scene of a fire, just wait for some good citizen to “contribute” and the problem solves itself. Unless a freelancer is hired ahead for a specific event, there is no money in just running for the news anymore.

            It’s a huge shift.

            I can think of a few things positive with “professional journalist” status. I think there is a level of credibility that comes with “being a pro”. If law enforcement, fire, and the like extended journalist access rights to only those who are “professional”, that would certainly be a good reason to do it. There is also the ability for an organization to say “we only use professional journalists, no second rate or cut rate people here”, etc.

            It’s a fine line.

            Reply
            1. Fagstein Post author

              If law enforcement, fire, and the like extended journalist access rights …

              The term “journalist access rights” is kind of scary in itself. Especially if we bestow upon a single organization the power to determine who can and cannot have access to those rights.

              Reply
          2. Alex H

            Alas, the other option is to have no access rights for anyone, consider all journalists as part of the unwashed masses, and having the police / fire / whoever no answer any questions for anyone because there is no way to determine who is and who is not a journalist. Otherwise, they would be forced to answer for anyone with a piece of paper and a pencil asking questions.

            Reply
            1. Fagstein Post author

              Alas, the other option is to have no access rights for anyone, consider all journalists as part of the unwashed masses

              What’s wrong with that plan? The law doesn’t guarantee access rights to any journalist right now. Has that stopped some important news from being revealed?

              And, frankly, I think government services should have to answer to anyone who asks them a question, within reason.

              Reply
          3. Alex H

            My fear in this always is that the any agency, when faced with “citizen journalists” will clam up entirely, and at best issue a less than informative press release or hand out that says as little as possible. They will be discourages from communication because they just don’t know who they are talking to.

            All you need is a few snarky special interest groups to record phone calls or “interviews” where they twist the words or take things far out of context, and the smart agencies will stop answering questions altogether. I can imagine the provincial and federal government agencies getting into this mode very quickly if they feel too many people are bothering them.

            Just ask your friends at work what it would be like if their “press card” didn’t mean anything, didn’t get them any access, didn’t get them into the press conferences, and didn’t let the photographers and such to access restricted areas to get the most compelling images. At that point, you might as well get your news from QMI.

            Reply
            1. Fagstein Post author

              My fear in this always is that the any agency, when faced with “citizen journalists” will clam up entirely, and at best issue a less than informative press release or hand out that says as little as possible.

              Sounds like the Prime Minister’s Office. Most government agencies are either so inundated with media requests that they’ve already done this – “citizen journalists” or not – and the rest are so desperate for media attention they’ll happily take questions from a 12-year-old with a Facebook page.

              All you need is a few snarky special interest groups to record phone calls or “interviews” where they twist the words or take things far out of context, and the smart agencies will stop answering questions altogether. I can imagine the provincial and federal government agencies getting into this mode very quickly if they feel too many people are bothering them.

              I’m not sure what any of this has to do with the idea of a professional journalist title. I also think you’re overestimating how much stuff like this happens or will happen.

              Just ask your friends at work what it would be like if their “press card” didn’t mean anything, didn’t get them any access, didn’t get them into the press conferences, and didn’t let the photographers and such to access restricted areas to get the most compelling images.

              The press card doesn’t mean anything. They don’t need to show it to get access to press conferences or do the vast majority of their work. The only cases where media accreditation and “restricted areas” apply are things like Bell Centre concerts and sporting events (in both cases to separate journalists from those who just want to get in for free), and nothing about that is going to change with a “professional journalist” title.

              Reply
  2. Marc

    You’ve pointed out the good things, which I agree with. But the rest sounds like a key to opening the box of Pandora. I figured this would create an association of captial J jouranlists set up as a semi-public corporation like the order of electricians. And as such,

    Requiring all professional journalists to pass a French language test and get regular French language training not only ignores the fact that that not all journalism in Quebec is done in French, but it also sounds like its goal is more about politics than it is about journalism.

    Yes, those from outside Quebec wishing to work at The Gazette or CFCF would have to take the OLF’s crooked French test which doesn’t accomplish what it claims to do. Good luck attracting talent with that.

    Reply
  3. wkh

    This kind of sounds like FPJQ making work for themselves.

    And I find it very scary as far as “freedom of the press” goes. Sure, technically FPJQ is independent. But it doesn’t take much to infiltrate a body and have the wrong people in charge, who are now vested with the power to decide who is and is not a journalist and award/strip them of rights accordingly.

    Reply
  4. ATSC

    Sounds very Soviet (Communist) style of controlling the information by controlling the Journalists, and who gets to play Journalists.

    Reply
  5. Stephane

    Typical Quebec. See a problem? Nothing that a new layer of oversight, management, committee, group etc won’t fix.

    Reply
  6. Fassero

    I always thought you were a journalist if you could drink like a fish (and still manage to type coherently), think sleep is for the weak, still firmly believes that the fedora is an underappreciated garment, and your psychological profile shows at least 5% “Gonzo”. I guess the FPJQ nannies know better :)

    Reply
  7. Pingback: Another boring journalism conference – Fagstein

  8. Marc

    Now that Dominique Payette has been confirmed as a PQ candidate in the soon-to-called election, maybe this is how she’ll finally relaize her dream.

    Reply

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