Journalism, jobs, and not much changes

Heard the one about the journalism graduate offered a job for £10k in London? Yes, that is an actual position that came up in conversation with a friend the other day. The experience, work-wise, sounds excellent. The experience, life-wise, probably amounts to renting out a cardboard box under Hammersmith Bridge.

I only mention because ever since last month there’s been an ongoing debate rumbling on, started mainly by Ed Ceasar’s Sunday Times piece, Hold The Front Page, I Want To Be On It, where he details the lengths – and financial pain – journalism graduates have to go through to get onto a national paper. The picture painted was somewhat bleak and depressing.

Since then, others have contributed to the debate. Adam Tinworth notes that Ceasar is very narrow in focus and omits vast swathes of the media:

“Journalism is a very, very broad church – and it was so long before the internet came along to knock down some walls, pop in an extra transept or two, and generally widen the whole place. Radio, TV, newspapers (local and national), consumer magazines, business magazines, niche subscription-only titles. Online news sites. Blogs. And now the whole, growing world of hyperniche and hyperlocal sites.”

Roy Greenslade partly agrees with Adam on this point, but also says that in his experience, most of his journalism students aren’t interested in these opportunities:

“I may exhort them to think about entrepreneurial journalism. They may learn about successful online news start-ups. They often tell me that mainstream media controlled by big, bad, profiteering moguls is a danger to press freedom. But these so-called “digital natives” still want to work for mogul-owned media.”

And Laura Oliver from journalism.co.uk, who is one of those people who, hopefully, acts as an inspiration to other recent graduates feels that the focus of the journalism postgrad courses are too narrow.

“I graduated from City’s newspaper journalism course in 2007. I applied for graduate schemes on national newspapers along with the rest of my classmates, but largely because I felt I had to. I wanted to work online and for a smaller newsroom/company where I hoped I could make more of a mark. But from day one it felt as if the expectations of our course were national or nothing – and I know from speaking to other recently-qualified journalists that it wasn’t just my course that pushed this view.”

Of course, this is nothing new. I sketched out a few thoughts on the subject just over two years ago and it doesn’t seem like much has changed. If anything, the world for new journalism graduates is even more unclear now than it was back then.

There’s a lot I recognise in all viewpoints. Ceasar’s article is all too depressingly familiar and chimes with the experiences of a lot of friends and colleagues.

Even those who managed to get themselves onto the nationals did so with a hideous level of debt that they’re nowhere near to repaying, and jobs in the market aren’t really offering huge salary boosts. When I applied for a interesting position, with an unspecified level of pay, a while back, I backed out after realising I’d have to take an £8k pay cut. And this was for a relatively senior role.

But then again, there are so many more opportunities, so many more publications online and the boundaries of media and the online world are so vague that willing graduates could find themselves in an excellent job that gave them plenty of training and experience if they’re prepared to think beyond the usual suspects.

And these kind of roles don’t necessarily mean a job on the nationals is beyond you. I’ve met a variety of people from a variety of ages ranges who’ve all made it to national media through completely different means. And yes, while increasingly a postgraduate is necessary, the path post-degree is of varying length and direction.

But for me, still, what it comes down to is money. Or lack of.

No matter how many different opportunities and different media and organisations there are out there, you still have to pay the bills – and your student debts – somehow. And that’s getting harder to do these days.

Not that pay will rise anytime soon. Universities are still churning out a large number of media graduates and even when you take into account the postgraduate courses, the job-to-graduate ratio is still at the stage where employers can keep their wages low – they’ll always be another talented, well-trained eager young thing willing to get that first foot on the ladder.

This doesn’t even take into account the large number of websites and web-only publications. It’s unlikely many of these will pay vast sums of money, either for freelance pieces or permanent positions. Partly because a lot of these places are so small that they don’t have the cash, and partly because there are enough people who’ll happily accept the odd low-pay commission for a bit of extra cash.

Put simply, no matter what the ideal situation is or how many opportunities there are out there, the economics of media pay do not paint a rosy picture.

As for the national positions – the national papers, the BBC TV and radio prime reporting positions, those big name magazines – those with the talent and drive to get there stand a good chance of doing so, although those with some cash stored away and a place to stay in London will always have an advantage. Unpaid internships and just being able to have that flexibility to come into the office helps.

(Not that it’s much different outside of London. I got my first freelance shifts after essentially coming in and working for free every day for a month at my local radio station. Not that I begrudged this – they didn’t force me and I had nothing else to do that summer, plus I really enjoyed the work. But I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t done the unpaid, unrequested work.)

I can’t speak for B2B publications and websites as I don’t have any direct experience of these, although general impressions are these are an excellent place to start on a decent salary, especially if you know finance, economics, or science. They’re also probably a neglected option by many graduates, sadly.

As for locals – and here I definitely disagree – plenty of postgrads I know or have trained with have been happy to go onto the locals. I was delighted to get a job in local radio. It’s an excellent training ground and I’m immensely proud of my work and background there.

As much as anything, just as there were those who were determined to make it to the national media, there were also those who were happy just to get offered a job, or those who saw it as a stepping stone to bigger things.

Locals are a great training ground and, mostly, a great place to work but ultimately, again, money plays a huge part. Salaries are typically low and pay rises are rarely forthcoming.

This is fine when you’re fresh out of university with no commitments and the debt something that can be dealt with at some other time. But eventually you start having to make important decisions like settling down (with a partner), deposits and mortgages, kids, career and just how much disposable income you want.

It’s at that stage where idealism fades into practicality  - and pushing yourself to get onto a national has, perhaps, a slightly more limited window of opportunity, if that’s the way you want to go.

That said, I know so many different people who work for so many different media, all of whom juggle the issues listed above that it’s difficult to generalise, as I’ve inevitably done above. But that doesn’t mean that money doesn’t hang over most media professionals’ heads.

To paraphrase one journalist, as we were chatting post-twofootedtackle podcast about the diversifying new media and the number of people prepared to work for free, “The media is changing and I’m not sure if I like it. I’ve embraced it, but I don’t necessarily like it.”

I think all of us have had that thought at one point or another.

9 thoughts on “Journalism, jobs, and not much changes

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention And here's my thoughts on the journalism graduates / pay / getting onto nationals debate -- Topsy.com

  2. Would certainly agree that the focus of journalism has perhaps not shifted as the industry has shifted.

    I can’t recall much mention of writing online content when I did my post-grad in 2005 and I certainly got the impression that my choice of work experience (a small magazine with a focus I was interested in) was frowned on by the course leaders.

    In actual fact through a series of coincidences that work experience did lead to paid freelance work and another (just about) paid role that filled out any gaps missing from the course.

    Of the other people on that course I can think of only a couple that work for one of the big media outlets or magazines.

    That said most of us still work in the media in one form or the other. We might not use anything we learnt on the course in the jobs but we probably wouldn’t have got the jobs without doing the course.

    It’s a difficult one. Don’t do it if you want to get rich quickly or if you’re not prepared to work to get to where you want to be (and, being a lazy so and so, I stress that from bitter experience).

    On the other hand money’s not everything and the internet has certainly increased the options available if not the money on offer.

  3. Pingback: Working for the Local Paper | Local Weeklypaper

  4. Pingback: Journalism and pay, time to call an end to the NCE

  5. For me the industry itself is geared towards keeping pay low with the ridiculous and outdated NCE exam.
    You qualify for a trainee job by sitting an NCTJ college or diploma course, do a few years in the real world and (despite being competent enough to keep your low-paid job) you don’t get to call yourself a ‘senior’ or the limited financial award that goes with it unless you pass another NCTJ test.
    Total racket and outdated.
    I hope this fantasy assessment goes the same way as local newspapers.

  6. I can’t speak for the NCE exam, as I never did it (my background’s in broadcasting, so I did an BJTC accredited course). It’d be interesting to hear if others have the same view of it. I’m a great believer in keeping skills topped up, although it does seem a bit counter-productive if it covers much the same ground as a postgraduate course.

    That said, plenty of other industries, notably the financial sector, have exams which operate along similar lines.

    I’d hate to see local newspapers completely die out though. There’s a lot wrong with them but also a lot of good as well.

    I’d certainly agree that the industry doesn’t exactly set itself up for high wages and I definitely don’t see that changing any time soon.

  7. One interesting development in the employment arena has been the rise of the SEO industry, who are hiring aspiring journalists in the US and UK to write up search engine-friendly copy for anyone who wants it. I suspect the work ranges from something akin to contract publishing down to linkspamming.

  8. Pingback: Pay, the big headache for graduates seeking jobs in journalism | Richard Hartley

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