The case of the recent Libération crisis in France is emblematic.
After a day’s strike protesting a restructure at their newspaper, many of the journalists returned to work to find that a whole new plan for the organisation had been adopted without their input. The owner, shareholders and editor wanted to turn their offices into a social media hub with a bar, restaurant, start-up accelorator and TV and film studios. But instead of continuing their strike, they took a different approach. They published the next day’s paper as usual, but with the front page headline: “Nous sommes un journal”, “We are a newspaper…not a restaurant, not a bar… not a start-up accelerator.”
The journalists themselves created a Twitter account and tumblr and soon the hashtag #noussommesunjournal started trending. Public and fellow media support flooded in – along with certain elements of opprobrium. Ultimately, the editor resigned in response and the affair showed social media’s capacity to empower journalists at the expense of their bosses.
This approach has not been confined to France. In Germany a collection of freelance journalists have taken to recording video parodies to gain attention for their campaign for better conditions; and their target has been a famous national newspaper, Die Zeit. The Free Writers Professional Association videos parody an advertising campaign for cinema run by the successful weekly. One of Die Zeit’s lavish filmic shorts features a journalist taking a taxi ride through New York, explaining how she stumbles upon stories. In the parody a freelance journalist is travelling through Hamburg’s red light district observing that while taxi fares might be paid for, research for the articles she writes is not. As the association remarks “a newspaper lives on their [freelance writers’] stories, whose authors and conditions of work remain in the background.” Their campaign uses social media and video parody to underline the threat to professional journalism posed by an over-reliance on free and cheap content.
Ironically, the social media sites sometimes blamed for contributing to the ‘downfall of journalism’ are the platforms the journalists are choosing to deploy in their battles with their bosses.
Not all such enterprises are as edifying. The tumblr dedicated to mocking the new owner of South Africa’s Cape Times does no great service to the cause of journalism. Written by an anonymous spoofer, the Daily Surve is irreverant, funny but deliberately offensive. Tumblr and Twitter are not industrial courts, but we are likely to see more internal media struggles being played out in public via social media platforms.