More than 175 members of the WGAE in the “staff” (that is, news) category answered a Guild questionnaire about trends in broadcast news. We want to engage in a conversation with Guild members about the future, how it will affect members and what the union should be doing about it.
Although most members who answered the questionnaire believe their employers will remain in the business for quite some time, most also think audiences for broadcast news will shrink, and that more and more material will be distributed on the Internet, including material that won’t be broadcast via TV or radio at all. More than two-thirds of the respondents said their employers will assign more work to people who work solely on the Internet. About 40% said their employers had assigned them digital media work. More than 60% reported increased workloads in general, and the same number think their jobs are less secure now than they were five years ago. When asked if they would advise a young person to pursue a career in broadcast news, less than 40% answered “yes”.
To understand what members think about where the Guild should focus its efforts and resources, we asked them to rank six options. The number one choice, by a significant margin: Enhance members’ skills. This won the most number-one rankings from respondents and was at the top in other measures, as well (e.g., adding together number-one and number-two rankings, and adding together the top three). Two other options also ranked high: encouraging the companies to broaden the work performed by members, and protecting the percentage of Guild-represented employees in each shop. We won provisions which protect the percentage of Guild representation for the first time in the 2010 negotiations, covering local station operations at CBS and ABC.
The two top-rated action items — enhancing members’ skills and encouraging the companies to broaden members’ work — are in a sense two sides of one coin. They seem to reflect that, as the technology and economics of news are transformed, the duties to be performed are also changing. The ratings suggest that members believe the best way for them, and thus the Guild, to maintain their key positions in the industry is to adapt to these changes by learning new skills and taking on new tasks. And this is borne out by members’ advice for young people contemplating careers in news. Some examples: “A newsperson needs to be well informed and trained in all media: i.e.: internet, social media, as well as broadcast and computer skills — and for God’s sake — spelling, grammar and punctuation.” And “facility with internet friendly formats, multi-media skills, entrepreneurship, self-motivation and an understanding that the news business does not pay much but is worth it.” Of course, members also stressed the fundamentals: “I would tell them to work on their writing — the person who can write and write well usually does the best in this business.” And, “Be a story teller.”
Questionnaire respondents wrote about the effect of the Internet on the news business: “I wish the Guild would understand that there is no such thing as ‘broadcast news’ anymore. Shows may go on at a certain time every day, but when has it really broken real, up-to-the minute news that you didn’t already know?” And, “I think the importance of network television in the traditional sense will continue to decrease over the next few years. There will continue to be growth in the online sector of all news products.” And, perhaps more dramatically: “Broadcast news is dead–the networks just haven’t realized it yet. Everything is shifting to the internet and WGA members need to be skilled in content creation for the net.”
This, too, suggests that broadening the work done by Guild members – particularly online and other digital news work – will be important to members’ long-term prospects. It also suggests, as a corollary, that organizing new members working primarily on employers’ web sites could also be important to maintaining the Guild’s place in the news industry.