In this special research article George Pitcher hears from senior journalists about the nature of their work and whether the next generation can be attracted to journalism as a worthwhile career option.
It’s often a habit of older generations to tell the young not to copy what they’ve done for a living – whether we’ve been medics, teachers or police officers, the jobs are “not what they were”. And so it is with journalism, which today may face its own recruitment crisis.
If good journalism is important to our society, then media groups need to respond positively. Reach, the former Trinity Mirror newspaper group, is the first news organisation to appoint 29 of 80 young Community News Reporters, aimed at communities under-served by local newsrooms – and funded by Facebook, supposedly the nemesis of regional journalism (along with the BBC, ironically enough as a public-service broadcaster).
These talented newbies will have technological practices unrecognisable to previous generations of local reporters, but the principles they inherit may be much the same: To inform, to challenge, to entertain. Prof Silvio Waisford of George Washington University has recalibrated the five Ws and one H (who, why, what, where, when and how), which have been drummed into rookie reporters since the birth of mass-media reporting, for the digital age and he concludes that digital journalism
…presents opportunities and threats. Just as it offers possibilities for newsrooms to tap into a wealth of information and to engage with multiple publics, it has also thrown industrial journalism off its dominant position. By doing so, it pushes the latter to reassess its connections to social actors, to adapt to new circumstances, and to revalidate its social standing and power when news are everywhere.
This narrative has it that journalism is a constant, irrespective of its means of distribution; that it contains within it a continuum from the industrial to the digital age. If that is so, then those working journalists who make the transition between industrial and technological ages are also guardians of the journalistic flame on its marathon journey.
At the coalface
I have been interviewing a panel of established UK-based journalists who have experienced that transition. They are in their forties and early fifties, at the top of their game – not figurehead executives, but senior journalists or former journalists at the coalface of operations. Over coming weeks, we will publish full interviews with them.
A recurrent theme of these interviews is that journalism is no longer an attractive career option. So would they want the next generation to follow in their footsteps? Richard Fletcher, Business Editor of The Times and a father of teenagers, is ambivalent:
Listen, if they really wanted to do it, I’d obviously encourage them and in some ways I’d be delighted. But it’s just a really difficult industry now. I don’t think it has the opportunities it once had. It’s difficult to get in, difficult to get on. You end up at the wrong paper or website and you suddenly find yourself working somewhere you probably shouldn’t be. I don’t want to be too negative about the industry, I just think it’s quite hard for a young person and I think there are probably better areas to be making your way in.
Andrew Porter, formerly of the Sunday Times and the Daily Telegraph, where he was one of the team that broke the MPs’ expenses scandal, and now poacher-turned-gamekeeper as a partner at communications consultancy Brunswick, has an 8-year-old daughter who likes to cut-and-paste her own newspaper front pages. He largely agrees on the economic case against encouraging her into a career in journalism:
I’d never stop her, but I also think the obvious mercenary point is that there’s no money in it. I came out of university in 1994 and because I didn’t know what else to do I went and worked at an accountancy firm. Then I went back to do a post-graduate one-year course in Journalism at Cardiff. I went from earning about £16,000 as a trainee accountant to my first job in journalism at the Western Morning News, which paid £10,500 in Plymouth.
So, while I didn’t go into journalism for the money, there was always an assumption – and I was very lucky, I got some good breaks – that if you got on and got a big job you would be paid accordingly. I think there’s been huge wage deflation in the industry. These days you can get up there into senior jobs and still not be paid enough. People said I was too young to get into this PR world at 38, but two years later I was hiring a guy who had been at the Spectator who was about 28.
Journalism, of course, is not meant principally to be about the money. There are easier ways to make a good living. Journalism is meant to be vocational. It’s meant to be fun. It’s meant to be about that business of speaking truth to power, isn’t it?
Nobility of purpose
The question arises whether there is still – indeed, whether there has ever been – a perceived nobility to the pursuit of journalism from those going into it. ITV journalist and news anchor Julie Etchingham, like Porter’s daughter today, kept a diary that was more of a reportage journal in her childhood, but claims it was always about the stories rather than the principles of journalism:
The thing that attracted me to journalism wasn’t that it’s an important part of our democracy and therefore let me go and be a seeker of truth. It was nothing like that. It was just that I wanted to hear people’s stories, I want to know people’s stories and I want to tell those stories. It’s being a Nosy Parker. I’m news-obsessive and I loved the places a news bulletin took me to even as a child – it opened the world to me.
But what about that nobility of purpose? Are there still high-minded motives in the job to which idealistic young minds might aspire? Etchingham agrees that there is a moral imperative in the everyday work of journalism:
I think there is a nobility in journalism, which all too often gets obfuscated by the day to day noise of what journalists in general are about. In the end – this is speaking personally but I’m sure a lot of others would say it as well – every time I’ve done an interview and I’ve taken it back to edit it, there is a judgment process that goes on about what you put in to your edit and what you leave out.
And in every single decision that you make when editing an interview, you are making not just a journalistic judgment, but you’re also actually making a moral judgment about what needs to be broadcast, whether you are accurately reflecting what that person has shared with you in their story, whether it’s a politician or a grieving parent.
There is, at every turn, a moral dimension to this job. In it’s worst excesses, there are times when journalism’s clearly veered way off from being a noble profession, but in the way that I like to think of how you do this job there really is a sort of nobility in it. And there’s a nobility in it particularly in the time we’re living in now – it’s absolutely about being a reliable source of impartial information, which I think people are really beginning to thirst for again.
The thirst may be there – and of a different kind to the thirsty males of old Fleet Street, more of which in a moment – but it could be a thirst in a journalistic desert, made more intense by the promise of media oases that turn out to be mirages in the new economic heat-haze. Robert Galster, UK Bureau Chief for Newsweek, sees it as a reliability problem for young journalists:
There is an ever more pressing need to fact-check. Relentlessly, in the face of constant deadlines and the pressure to publish, as information – any information – becomes available without delay. The same technology that gave a platform to misinformation will eventually make this easier as initiatives across the world aim to fight the real “fake news”. Google’s News Lab, for one, has taken on some of this work by developing verification tools and training journalists in how to use them.
Anyone embarking on a career in journalism today will be well-advised to arm themselves with these tools, and an understanding of the technology involved. This is a huge issue, because it is one for the industry as a whole. Its application to the life of a young journalist can be significant. Like their employers, a journalist’s reputation matters and it is easier to get things wrong today than ever. There are organisations and individuals setting out to spread misinformation on an industrial scale – these are like special interest groups on steroids.
The pressure for the young entrant into journalism is exacerbated by a narrowing employment market that inevitably favours the economically privileged, particularly as fractured media groups consolidate their ranks in the metropolitan bubble of London. Fletcher says:
National journalism is dominated by a middle-class and upper middle-class demographic, very Oxbridge, very white. There are exceptions to that obviously. One of the things that amazes me, despite all the challenges the industry faces, is I fear it’s getting worse, not better. I think there’s less chance for people to break into it now than when I broke into it. I’m not saying I’m not middle-class, but I didn’t go to Oxbridge, I went to a polytechnic. I am white, middle-class and male – it just depresses me. And I also think it affects our coverage.
Fletcher recalls what he calls “a brilliant piece of journalism” in the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire, by a journalist on Buzzfeed, Ikran Dahir, who knew that survivors would break their Ramadan fasts in June 2017 for iftar, the first meal after sundown. She found her scoop through ethnic awareness. Fletcher adds:
She talked to survivors and friends and relatives and it just struck me at that moment there would have been barely anyone in a national newspaper who would have had any idea that that would happen at the end of the day – and this was in the middle of summer so you’re talking about 10.30 or 11 o’clock at night. It’s at moments like these, you realise we suffer from a lack of diversity. I’m less worried about the social diversity perspective – it’s more that we just don’t get good stories because of it.
If news providers fail to deliver stories through a lack of demographic diversity in their staff, then the second most important demographic for them, behind that of their readers, is likely to continue to elude them – a young, talented generation of new journalists. Julie Etchingham – who was once asked if she was the secretary by a senior politician visiting the News at Ten studio during the 2015 general election – claims that there is hope as a result of working-environment improvements in recent years:
I’ve had situations where I’ve had a male colleague say they can go and do that person and I can interview the wife. I’ve had lots of little incidences like that along the road. But that actually to most women will feel like First World problems and most of us just learnt to get pretty sharp elbows, sharp tongues, and found our way through it. And when I look across our newsroom now, I see an incredible mixture of young men and women.
They’re working alongside one another as equals, who would absolutely expect to be treated equally. There are still big questions over the gender pay gap, but I would say that at the level that the young journalists are coming into newsrooms now they would, they should, because of the furore that’s been made around it, absolutely have the expectation that they won’t go through what some of us have been through.
The challenges for the recruitment of a new generation of journalists, equipped to carry the best standards of journalism into the digital era, are about diversity and demographics, as well as about economics and technology. Unless and until news organisations meet all those challenges, the decline of UK journalism will be as irreversible as its naysayers predict. But that doesn’t need to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.
You can read the full transcript of the interview with Julie Etchingham by clicking on his link:
Click on this link to read the full transcript of the Richard Fletcher interview transcript
This article is by George Pitcher who advises Dow Jones, publisher of the Wall Street Journal, on ethics and the future of journalism and is a Visiting Fellow at LSE. He formerly held senior editorial positions at The Observer and the Daily Telegraph. @GeorgePitcher
All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of Polis, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science