But in recent years it has come under fire, accused of being out of touch, by bloggers like Guido Fawkes, with the modern realities of industry, and criticised by its own members for supporting press regulation with statutory-underpinning. It was also publicly condemned for its association with the Hacked Off pressure group by Telegraph commentator Peter Oborne.
Coupled with the financial uncertainty within the industry and the general decline of union membership across the UK since the government reforms in the mid eighties, these factors are making it less and less desirable to young journalists.
The NUJ has run several high-profile campaigns aimed at protecting vulnerable new entrants – most notably the 'Cashback for Interns' campaign which aims to help young journalists claim unpaid wages back from employers in court.
But hit by ruinous undergraduate and graduate debt, plus low and unpaid jobs, the next generation of writers, broadcasters and photographers seem reluctant to spend anywhere between £13 and £24 per month on membership.
One young local news reporter, who did not want to be identified, said the union was still held in high regard by the older members of staff on their paper, but they personally could not see them taking any constructive actions other than strike threats – meaning there was little incentive to join.
Similarly Mail Online trainee, Kieran Corcoran, 22, said he had no plans to join the union.
"I’m not a member myself and I don’t know of anybody else my age who is. Nobody has ever suggested that I join," he said.
"I looked at the rates once and decided it wasn't worth it. I just checked back and it's a touch less than my student loan repayment each month. I could afford membership if I wanted, but I don’t.
"The Cashback for Interns campaign is a nice idea, but I doubt it will achieve much. I was lucky enough not to have to work unpaid for very long at all, but if I were still an intern I wouldn’t dream of taking any action against a paper I’d worked at for fear it would make it harder to get a job."
But freelance multimedia journalist Bonnie Newman, 25, who has been a full member of the NUJ for the past 18 months, thinks differently.
"The most important thing about the trade union movement in general is you have control over the industry and have power to effect policy," she said.
"If young people don't get involved in the NUJ, then those sorts of issues (like work experience and internships) are not going to be dealt with. You can't expect older members to have understanding of the issues facing us.
"I went to the recent AGM which had a young delegates meeting – I was able to actually change NUJ policy and they now have more younger members able to join."
Bonnie is currently involved in a joint project with the Youth Media Agency to promote youth membership across the country and stresses there are many active young members in the NUJ although exact figures are unavailable.
"I suppose there are more active older members than younger members but, for example, the chair of the London Independent Broadcasting and New Media branch, Alex Macdonald is 23," she said.
As Barry Fitzpatrick, deputy general secretary of the NUJ, added, “these are tough times for young people breaking into the industry and having a union behind you is very helpful".
"The union will help you if you are being exploited by publishers who offer unpaid internships – we have won back pay for members and we work with publishers to put proper paid internship programmes in place."
With 38,000 members the NUJ (compared with BECTU’s 25,000) is still the biggest media union in the country but with news organisations like News International refusing to recognise it, its powers appear increasingly limited to a number of young people.
In fact, a leaked memo from its general secretary Michelle Stanistreet in 2012 revealed the union had seen an 18 per cent drop in its membership over the past five years.
For the next generation born into a post-Thatcherite world where employee unions had been defeated, the notion of collective action seems alien.
Now that unpaid work is endemic and competition for jobs is fiercer than ever before, many young people feel like they do not have the bargaining power or the necessary financial resources to contemplate union action.
So what can the NUJ do to attract the attention of young journalists? The ‘Cashback for Interns’ campaign seems like a good idea to many but it comes across as too little too late for some who do not want to rock the boat with their former employers. Many argue if they were more aware of the NUJ’s successes however, rather than just their threats, they may be more inclined to get involved.
Update: This article was updated to clarify the NUJ's support was for press regulation with statutory-underpinning
Caroline Mortimer is a freelance journalist and blogger specialising in youth issues, @CJMortimer
Free daily newsletter
- 'Who do we know?': The challenges of media plurality
- NUJ gen sec: Union protection 'needed by journalists now more than ever'
- NUJ may cut one fifth of staff in face of 'severe financial crisis'
- Associated Press journalists balloted for industrial action
- Broadcasters win judicial review of Dale Farm footage order