Independent columnist Johann Hari talks a lot of sense when he speaks out about low pay in the industry, although I don’t think you need rich parents – just well off ones. Even so, it can’t be good that the majority of new entrants into journalism come from financially comfortable middle-class backgrounds.
On one hand, there is increasing professionalisation of the industry. Although I’ve met some journalists who look down on postgraduate NJTC and BJTC accredited courses, most new entrants are increasingly going down that route, either to find their first job or to make themselves more employable.
As a graduate of one of these courses, I learnt a hell of a lot that will stay with me no matter what media job I find myself working in. And unless you’ve already got yourself nicely set up with a journalism job, I’d recommend them to anybody serious about getting into the industry, especially the courses at Cardiff and City (and Falmouth for broadcasting as well).
However, at around five to six grand, these courses don’t come cheap, and a career development loan is often the only option to fund yourself through it. Chances are you’ll have done a degree beforehand as well, which comes with several more thousand in the way of debts.
Both postgrads and non-postgrads are then faced with low starting salaries, especially if they head regionally (which is usual – there aren’t that many jobs with the nationals for a newly-qualified journo). I know one who started on £11k, while £13-£15k was the common starting salary for a high-trained skilled professional. Pay rises were infrequent.
Even if you skip the postgraduate phase, most media jobs require you to do a lot of unpaid work experience before they’ll take you on. Again, living costs over this period mount up. You can rarely walk straight into journalism without plenty of work experience and/or training but it’s difficult to balance the finances without income.
And, as Hari notes, there are a lot of would-be or junior-level journalists who simply give up because its not worth it financially. At some point you’ve got to become decide if journalism is going to pay the bills.
There’s a few other aspects to factor in though. Journalism’s one of those jobs that has been a surge in popularity and, as is inevitable, there’s more would-be journalists than there are entry-level jobs so wages can remain low. For every trainee who passes on a low-paid position because of the salary, there’ll be another three who’ll bite the editor’s hand off for a job.
[Of course some of this can be traced back to the government’s ridiculously arbitrary target of 50% of school levers to university, which has hideously depressed wages in the graduate job market and reduced the quality of graduates on offer, especially in the general area of media But that’s another complaint for another blog post.]
There is hope. The web provides an alternative way in, not necessarily through the concept of citizen journalists (which is a bit of a loose definition) but through blogging and fan sites and all sorts of similar online ventures.
For example: when I was about 8 or 9 I used to try and create my own newspaper using glue, folded over sheets of paper and crayons (I was a bit of a odd child in many respects, this being just one of them). Sadly there was only ever one copy produced, as I hadn’t got access to a printing press, and the only computer was one of those old BBC machines with huge disc drives. Even sadder, nobody picked up on my front page scoop of “Fence being built in Gran’s back garden”.
But nowadays there’s nothing to stop an equally odd kid setting up his own community newsletter online, sent out via email. He won’t have to use crayons to illustrate a picture of his Gran’s new fence – he can upload a picture via mobile phone, or if he’s got access to some kit with video capabilities, a quick video report.
Now fast forward to the end of school. The old Press Gang idea will have changed somewhat. With wi-fi, Twitter, social media sites, and a whole host of Web 2.0 tools they’ll be able to beak scoops at any time of the day on their websites and blogs, and won’t have to worry about getting the whole thing printed and past the school authorities (naturally, it’ll be available for download though).
Now if a teenager approached me with that on his CV already, I’d be pretty impressed. Here’s somebody who wants to be a reporter, and knows and understands the web, and has potential. Ok, so they’d still have a lot to learn, and the unpaid work experience would naturally come into the equation, but it’s still a hypothetical example of how you don’t need to have money to enter journalism.
But back into the here and now, low pay is a huge issue for many of my ex-coursemates or friends from student journalism days. I can immediately think of around a dozen who’ve voiced ideas about leaving the industry because they’re demoralised and simply can’t afford to stick with it as a career, while others are freelancing every hour God sends outside of their job to get extra cash. And yes, a lot of them are talented and could make it to the very top, if they could afford it.
That’s not to say its all gloom and doom. I know just as many who love what they do, and wouldn’t dream of quitting, even if they’re not exactly flushed with cash, while there’s several others who’ve landed plum well-paid positions on regionals and nationals either on their first job or through sheer hard graft. But that has often involved a hand-to-mouth existence for the first couple of years in the latter case.
But Hari’s wrong about one thing – they don’t necessarily move to less-rewarding industries. Although I get twinges of nostalgia, and keep up writing and journalism when I can, I don’t regret moving on from my reporting job into PR for one moment – it’s a job with difference challenges but one that is no less enjoyable.