Roy Greenslade, who appears to be my favourite blogger du jour, sparked a furore last week after deciding to quit the NUJ after 30 years of membership, a move which makes even more sense once you digest what the NUJ thinks about ‘Web 2.0’.

The National Union of Journalists’ magazine – which I don’t subscribe to, before you get the wrong impression – has a bizarre article in this month’s issue called ‘Web 2.0 Is Rubbish’.

Penned by NUJ new media representative Donnacha DeLong, the article perfectly sums up the NUJ’s attitude to the internet, which sits somewhere between confused and fearful. Or inconsequential, if you accept the reality of how the media industry is being forced to change, and – heads up NUJ – for the better.

Let’s take a look at some excerpts, and please consider this question when you read them: “Who are these dastardly Web 2.0 propagandists?”

Comrade DeLong:
“Isn’t increased participation and feedback from our ‘users’ — readers and viewers — a good thing? Of course it is, but the problem with Web 2.0 is not how it introduces these elements to the media, but how it’s seen as replacing traditional media.”

How is Web 2.0 ‘replacing traditional media’ and what exactly does that mean? What is ‘traditional’ in this context? And should traditional media never be ‘replaced’? Who perceives this to be happening, apart from the NUJ?

I think DeLong starts off on the wrong track here. Nobody in their right mind believes that user comments will replace traditional media. In fact they existed without traditional media for many years. They lived on what were popularly known as ‘forums’ or ‘bulletin boards’ back in the day. Just like DeLong and I, people like to share their views, however irrelevant / ridiculous. It’s human nature.

The real thing to look at here is how user participation can help publishers (first and foremost) and journalists (second - like it or not). Interaction will help sustain and grow ‘traditional’ media products, rather than replacing them.

Comrade DeLong:
“Professional media provide users with something that we need to fight to retain – truly authoritative content.”

Hmmm. ‘Truly Authoritative’ is not a synonym for any of the following: 100% accurate, 100% commercially independent, 100% unbiased, 100% truthful, 100% fair or 100% interesting.

I could point you at 100 blogs that are ‘truly authoritative’, and 100 big media articles that are not. Experts are experts. Journalists are journalists. Authority is earned by experts, whereas it is donated to most journalists by association with a top newspaper brand.

Comrade DeLong:
“[Professional media has] the ability to produce content that informs and fulfil an essential part of democracy – the widespread dissemination of information that allows the public to question those in charge.”

I’d argue that the internet at large does a far better job of disseminating information than a biased media. Like it or not, very few journalists retain any real sense of objectivity (they can be thwarted by their editors, or the ‘house style’ guidelines on what is and isn’t editorially permissible).

Publishers meanwhile continue to nail flags to commercial and political masts, as they always have done. ‘Journalism’ remains joined at the hip with the interests of publishers / advertisers, and I guess that’s always been so. Readers, who typically possess a brain, would do well to take everything they read (see or hear) with a large pinch of salt.

And what then do we make of social news sources such as Digg, which are entirely user-driven, hugely popular, and generate much discussion? How does that fit into the ‘Web 2.0 is rubbish’ argument, especially when Digg is a big shop window for articles published by qualified journalists, potentially driving tens of thousands of visits to these stories?

If opinions make the world spin then sites like Digg (which is a hub, not a destination), as well as user comments on main news stories, are paramount to educating readers and helping people see two – or ten – sides to any particular story. Note that this doesn’t detract in any way from the role of the journalist, who may spark a debate, or provide a pivot point on which other ideas and arguments may arise (such as this very article).

Comrade DeLong:
“Those who argue that Web 2.0 is the future want to throw out the baby with the bathwater.”

Who, exactly, is putting forward the argument that ‘Web 2.0 is the future’ in the sense that it will replace traditional media? Are these real arguments, or is this the NUJ Anti-Hype Brain Police at work?

Comrade DeLong:
“The idea that, instead of posting comments below a journalistic article, we get rid of the article altogether and just have the comments is truly dangerous.”

Again, who on earth would ever suggest such a thing? If you do that on The Times or The Sun, and if I’m Mr Murdoch, then you’re fired. Because you just changed my newspaper into a bloody bulletin board.

Comrade DeLong:
“In one of the main examples given to explain Web 2.0, Wikipedia replaces Britannica Online. Is that the kind of democracy we want – where anyone can determine the information that the public can access, regardless of their level of knowledge, expertise or agenda?”

None of this seems linked to the specific ‘threat’ to journalists from Web 2.0. And that’s because nobody thinks that newspapers (online or offline ones) would be remotely interesting were they to be entirely reader-powered. Surely no publisher is considering this as a killer strategic play? They still need journalists and won’t be asking readers to write their news stories anytime soon.

Journalists should not be losing sleep over the fact that Wikipedia might be x% less accurate than Britannica Online. They should be losing sleep if their publishers are:

a) standing still,
b) taking too long to execute ideas,
c) resisting reader comments and other forms of interaction, and
d) blind to the fact that their business models are changing and need to change…

…because that’s when (more) reporter’s jobs will be at risk.

Now, blessed Union, please quit with the scaremongering and the weird anti-web propaganda, for that’s what it is. Stop worrying the flock. The web vs offline brainteaser isn’t an either/or choice for publishers. Both should be used to strengthen business models, and from where we’re sitting that’s exactly what most of them are trying to do.

So, in nut, Web 2.0 might be ‘rubbish’ but it isn’t a threat, it is an opportunity.

Further Reading

Journalists worried about their roles might want to read this article on self-improvement and becoming web-savvy. There are no barriers or costs involved, so fear ye not.

Blatant, contextual plug

Publishers worrying themselves to an early grave can look no further than this sexy initiative between the Periodical Publishers Association and E-consultancy, which is aimed at senior managers to help them make the most of the web and all it’s 2.0 goodness. There are costs involved because it’s very exclusive and should make a real difference. We do in-house staff training for publishers too.