National study sheds light on journalists’ working conditions in the digital age

New study finds that digital technologies are transforming the work of Canadian journalists—and not for the better. By Aeman Ansari, Reporter What is it like to work as journalist in today’s digital age? Thanks to a new research report, we are beginning to find out. The researchers surveyed 300 Canadian journalists on their working conditions…

New study finds that digital technologies are transforming the work of Canadian journalists—and not for the better.

By Aeman Ansari, Reporter

What is it like to work as journalist in today’s digital age? Thanks to a new research report, we are beginning to find out.

The researchers surveyed 300 Canadian journalists on their working conditions as digital journalists over the course of two months last year and then presented their initial findings at the Canadian Association of Work and Labour Studies conference in May. The paper, titled “Journalistic Labour and Digital Transformation: A Survey of Working Conditions,” looks at how journalists’ working conditions are affected by digital technologies.

The report found that journalists who work with digital technologies faced increased workloads, declining pay, increased unpaid work and job insecurity. The paper highlights a significant decrease in journalists’ wages and confirms that unionized journalists fare better. The study, which is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, suggests that the structure of contemporary journalism is not sustainable.

James Compton, who teaches in the media studies program at Western University, in London, Ont., and is one of the researchers, spoke with J-Source about the impact of digital technologies on the working conditions of Canadian journalists.

J-Source: How does your study on journalists’ working conditions explore unchartered territory?

James Compton: The question of labour in journalism studies has been a blind spot. There has been a lot of research on the sociology of news, particularly in the 1970s. A lot of research looks broadly at readership and questions of concentration of media, but the questions of labour and working conditions in media studies haven’t received the attention they should.

J-Source: Why do you think this is a valuable study in this day and age?

JC: Questions around working conditions and how news is produced are crucial, but are not talked about a lot. There is a context in which news is produced, and it changes the quality of news that can be produced. One of the things this report points to is that journalism workers are under increasing strain and stress in the workplace, both full-time employed and freelance journalists. This has implications on the quality of journalism, although we are at this point only trying to document through this survey the extent to which people feel their jobs are precarious in relation to the introduction of new technologies. This research is very timely. Take the recently proposed buyout of Sun Media newspapers. The coverage is really striking. I only saw one story in the Toronto Star that looked at the implications of this proposed buyout on journalism itself. Most pieces have been on the business logic and about rationalizing digital platforms. Hardly anyone is talking about the implications on the craft and what it means for the work that is done. The introduction of these new digital technologies changes work routines and how you can do your work. 

J-Source: Did the study’s findings surprise you?

JC: Our hypothesis going in was that we would find increasing levels of precarity and we did. We predicted that we would find that being unionized would make journalists feel like they are in a more secure position and more able to do their work, so that didn’t surprise me. I have to say that the findings aren’t at all surprising. It’s about documenting things that have not been documented—that’s really the work that we are doing.

J-Source: Can you identify one key finding that you think readers can take from your study?

JC: We’d like people to consider the implications of the findings. There are very important implications for the health of democracy if we find that the people who do the work of gathering information and producing important stories about the world in which we live are under stress and can’t perform their jobs adequately. That is what the study suggests. Our further research will be delving into those questions. Given the narrow and skewed focus of the coverage on the business pages of the current proposed buyout by Postmedia, we are really filling a hole here. There have been massive layoffs in the United States and Canada. There are a lot of unemployed or less securely employed journalists in this country. The business models are tapping into that. They want to tap into this growing reserve army of precarious journalism labour. They are paying them very poorly and maybe even getting them to work for free by telling them they need to “build their brand” … as if everyone can build their brand and make a decent living doing so. The very large American hedge funds are calling the shots on how we organize essentially a majority of English-language newspapers in this country (that’s what the Postmedia deal would mean). What are the implications of that? There will be more challenges for journalists. Part of the work we want to do is to refer these empirical findings back to a broader political and economic context and draw out the implications for the practice of journalism in relation to democracy.

J-Source: If there is such a high demand for digital journalists, why aren’t organizations providing more secure and appealing work conditions?

JC: The interest of the owners is to make money, not to make quality journalism. If you can wring more efficiency out of reporters and editors using digital technology, like filing for multiple platforms on short deadlines, there is a business rationale for that. Companies want to repurpose resources and increase value from labour and increase profit. There is no evidence that this leads to better reporting. In fact the evidence is quite contrary. People who are asked to do multiple things do multiple things less well.

J-Source: Do you think working conditions will improve as news organizations become more comfortable with new digital technologies?

JC: Not without pushback. The interest of shareholders and owners are currently driving these decisions. Many people will try to be apologists by saying “we need different ways to tell stories.” That’s not really what’s driving the implementation of these technologies. They are being introduced to extract more value out of reporters and that won’t stop without pushback. The quality of newspapers across Canada has been plummeting and it’s not to say that it’s only because of new digital technologies, but it is related to the rationalization of labour and resources. One would hope that there might be some pushback from readers. My argument is that if the business case for newspapers is allowed to trump the role that journalism has played in liberal democracy, we are in real trouble. The legitimacy of liberal democracy itself would eventually be put in jeopardy if we no longer have this labour that is putting power in check. People need to push back on that.

This interview has been edited and condensed.