Are “Digital Journalists” really “scabs”?

Sylvia Paull has an angry post headed “The new scabs: digital journalists”.

ABC announced a layoff of hundreds of journalists this week and said it would work instead mostly with “digital journalists,” people who can do a variety of tasks, such as blog, tweet, and take digital photos. This is the first time I’ve heard the term “digital journalist,” and I’m not sure what distinguishes such a journalist from every other journalist who now must use the Web to report and communicate except that they are certainly much cheaper to hire.

A digital journalist probably doesn’t accrue vacation time, sick leave, or a pension. A digital journalist probably works on a contract basis and like many of the freelance journalists I know who once worked for a news organization, they write for several media rather than just one.

I wonder whether graduate schools of journalism now produce journalists or digital journalists. And can someone go from being a journalist to being a digital journalist, or does the journalist have to downgrade his or her reporting and communications skills first?

I can understand her anger/irritation, but the mindset implicit in her terminology is revealing. Mass-media print publication was a mass-production culture: and it prompted the rise of trade unions to provide protection from employees employed to work on what were effectively production lines. The term ‘scab’ (i.e. strikebreaker) comes from the early history of campaigning by unions who used withdrawal of labour as a weapon.

But the era of mass-production print is drawing to a close, and with it most of its associated baggage, including large bodies of unionised workers. It’s difficult at present to see what will replace the print system, but you can bet that it won’t be the licence to print money represented by ownership of printing presses and distribution networks in the analog age. A new business model for journalism will, I’m sure, eventually emerge, but it won’t be one that generates the vast profits enjoyed until recently by many traditional publishers. It’ll be leaner, more innovative, less stable and more competitive. So when leaders of the print culture portray the Net as the great destroyer of journalism, what they’re really complaining about is that it’s a destroyer of their cosy old local monopolies. For them, the undermining of journalism is just collateral damage.

None of this is meant to imply any enthusiasm on my part for what ABC has done, btw. The big danger in all this is that a new set of monopolists (Yahoo, Google, Facebook, Flickr, YouTube) will turn everyone into sharecroppers.