New journalists: are we screwed?

Journalism is a profession that I’ve idolised since I was tiny.

For my sixth christmas, I got a ‘Make your own newspaper’ kit. My brand new Sega Master System was thrown to one side as I set to work writing.  After asking my parents what someone who did this for a living was called, I was always going to be a journalist.

Nearly two decades later, I’m sitting in the London flat I share with my girlfriend.  I have all the necessary qualifications, skills and experience one requires for a job in the news industry, but I’m awaiting my first shift with a large chain of pubs later this week.  I’m not dodging bullets in front of a camera in war-torn Africa, or at a microphone grilling the Chancellor on the state of the economy, or even in the corner of a local newspaper office writing obituaries like I feel as though I should, I’ve worked hard enough to achieve it.  I can’t be the only one – there are around 40 official Journalism courses in the UK according the the National Council for the Training of Journalists.  After graduating from two of them I can count on my fingers the  number of my coursemates who have achieved some form of journalistic success.  Is this entirely our fault?

Education Education Education

I grew up during Tony Blair’s New Labour Government, with its emphasis on “Education Education Education”.  The crux of which was “Go to university!  You’ll get nowhere in life if you don’t go to university!  It doesn’t matter what you study, just go!”  The measure of success for a school became how many students it could claim went on to tertiary education of some form, the more prestigious the establishment the better.  Therefore all the careers advice that I sought during my time at school steered me towards university; and as a result I assumed that there was no other way of becoming a journalist.  But only a couple of months ago, I finished reading Andrew Marr’s brilliant book on journalism, My Trade, in which he reminisces on the training courses he was sent on by the newspapers themselves with a view to moulding him into the ideal Fleet Street hack.  The Journalist’s Handbook by Kim Fletcher also refers to such courses.  They’re still run by newspapers today; the competition for places is intense, but they exist nonetheless.  I wasn’t told this at school; as far as I was aware it was university, or failure.  This is the first mistake that I believe was made that consequently caused the current journalistic job lull.  Had teachers and career advisers been more concerned about the aspirations of their students than quotas and targets and the reputations of their schools, then more honest and realistic advice may have been offered to us.

I did make it to university – only just, through a combination of the hair-tearing stress I went through to attain the measly B and C grades at Scottish Higher level, and discovering that a new journalism degree course at Glasgow Caledonian University was accepting students on lower grades because of its developing nature (its entry requirements are now ABBB).  Throughout these four years, while being taught how to write news reports and shorthand and media law, I gained what work experience I could, writing reviews for music websites, helping out in a local radio station newsroom, then producing video news stories for local newspapers that were experimenting with online content, where I discovered I was far more adept at broadcasting than I was at writing.  All the while I, along with everyone else on my course, was being praised for going out into the world and making the necessary contacts – as far as we were concerned, we were doing everything right and this would lead us straight into relevant employment.  But during the final two years of that course, two developments stood firmly in our paths.

Anyone can do this

With the sudden explosion in popularity of blogging somewhere around the mid-2000s came the realisation that anyone could be “a journalist”.  Degrees and experience and hard work were unnecessary; all people needed were a cheap digital camera, a laptop and a branch of Starbucks to write something that could potentially be read by millions of people.  This was soon picked up and eventually capitalised on by major news organisations like the BBC and The Guardian.  Lists and polls of “trusted” blogs soon materialised, mostly consisting of people who had vaguely stumbled into the journalistic world without ever having had the aspirations of those who were slogging away for the same success.  But the students and trainees of journalism were screaming – without this hard work how could these self-proclaimed media types know the finer points of libel law and contempt of court, what of ethics and codes of conduct?  We were convinced that their success would be short lived; that once bloggers started getting into trouble with the law, those who were truly hungry for news would come crawling back to the proper journalists.

Coming out fighting

Then with my final year of University came “The Credit Crunch”.  An exciting time for reporting news, but not something which worried us initially – the Government had ignored the economists and continued borrowing money and now it was coming round and biting them on the arse.  Their problem, not ours, we thought.

Then the newspaper offices across the road from our university campus announced that, because of said crisis, a large percentage of their staff were being made redundant.  Similar rumblings came from the newsroom next door.

The buildings we’d spent hours looking hopefully out of our classroom windows at were turfing out their own staff, leaving us little hope that they would take any of us on as staff.  This started happening up and down the country, not just with newspapers but in the newsrooms of television and radio broadcasters too.  As a result, when we emerged from our graduation ceremony, parchment certificates in hand, we were fighting not only with the hundreds of other journalism graduates from across Britain for the tiny handful of jobs left in existence, but with the seasoned hacks who had recently lost their jobs.  In this situation a degree counts for nothing, experience is key.  We were pushed further and further down the chain of desirability – those with family and personal connections at the top, followed by the recently fired reporters with years of contacts and splashes under their belts, then us, the graduates.

At least we were admired.  When I told people that I had an honours degree in journalism I received much greater interest and intrigue from people than those who had studied accountancy or history did.  I was seen as trying to work my way into a respected and noble profession; with the exception of the Red Top tabloid reporters, we were seen as a trustworthy bunch.  Unable to find a job, I borrowed a stupid amount of money and enrolled into a postgraduate degree with the hope that I could specialise in broadcast journalism and continue down that route.  But towards the end of this time, and soon after my second graduation, came what I think was the final nail in the coffin for new journalists today.

The only way is ethics

Rumours of “unethical” behaviour by reporters had been circulating for a while, particularly a practice called phone hacking, mostly attributed to the tabloids who were trying to pursue big scoops on minor celebrities, something that was of little interest to those of us who were pursuing serious careers.  This changed on the 4th of July 2011.

This happened.  It wasn’t just celebrities who were victims, allegedly it was murdered young girls too.  What happened from here onwards we’re all aware of – the broadsheets were at it too, claims were made, people were sacked, people went to court, News of the World, Murdoch, Leveson, Hugh Grant, etc, etc.

All hope is gone

Now, journalism is apparently an oversaturated, untrustworthy industry full of criminals and lacking in jobs.  This is what I have spent twenty years of my life striving for, getting myself into mountains of debt for, offering my services to potential employers free of charge, Pro Bono, for.  Telling people what I’m trained and qualified to do has become the punchline to so many jokes.  “You’re a journalist??  Have I got any voicemail messages?  Who have you hacked today then?  The police pay for that, did they?  Why don’t you get a proper job?”  And as selfish as it may appear to say so, I don’t think that any of this is my fault.  Nor is it that of anyone who dreamed twenty years ago of having that reporters job, but have either had the good fortune of “failing upwards” into PR or internal communications, with twice the pay for half the work, or who have joined the back of the long dole queue, or are making an honest living behind the checkouts of your local supermarket.

It is my firm belief that we were herded into university establishments by our high schools, fooled into thinking that it was our only chance of success, before having work taken from us by opportunists who assumed that they could do with a weblog what we studied for years to do properly and within the confines of the law, then the outrageous spending habits of previous government stole from us what few jobs were available to us, with the old-school of journalism who we admired for years finally destroying all hope for us by stretching to the limit and beyond the perceived “ethics” of the industry.

Don’t get me wrong, there is work out there, and some of the new breed of journalists are finding success.  But it’s far tougher now than it has been at any time; what’s galling is that we tried so hard before having it ruined beyond our control.  We’re now in a situation where we have to work for free, or in some unbelievable cases pay to be employed.  If we aren’t either rich or “know someone who knows someone” then we struggle to get a look in.  Since leaving university I have applied for in excess of 150 journalism or similar jobs.  I would presume that my lack of success says more about my applications than it did about the employers if there weren’t so many people in my shoes.

What now?

So where do we go from here?  Where is journalism going?  The printed press still has its place but is lacking in popularity in comparison to television and online news, that much is obvious.  Is there still a need for trained journalists when so many people are willing to believe what’s written on a website without checking its sources, would we even make any difference?  Do we still have the authority and respect that we once had?  I struggle to believe that we do.  My own worries centre on what he hell I should do now.  Everything I wanted since that Christmas present as a six-year-old now seems completely unachievable.  Do I give up and pursue a career in estate agency, or sales or insurance, something with a guaranteed income but throwing away everything I’ve ever wanted?

Or should the new breed of journalists be sticking together and trying to fix this mess?

Being on the frontline of the journalistic collapse, we can see what should have been done and we now know what’s right, what’s “ethical”.  Can’t we do something with this?  Disregard what those before us have done and start afresh?

I’m clinging on to all hope for now.



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Too old for tantrums?

“It’s becoming increasingly easy for employers, unhappy at the prospect of a dispute, to rely on the courts to intervene and nullify a democratic ballot for industrial action on a mere technicality”1

That was Brendan Barber from the TUC yesterday (1st April 2010).  The High Court in London blocked the strike action proposed by the union with the Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association.

Now maybe it was just my own frustration at the proposals (it would have prevented my girlfriend from coming to visit me in Edinburgh, and us both from returning home again), but that little quote struck a chord with me. Maybe it was the rousing firebrand enthusiasm with which it was delivered, typical of speeches made by union chiefs. Or maybe it was the wording of it. Something about the word “democratic”, perhaps? In the midst of a general election it’s an important word: in this country it’s our democratic right to vote, as granted by the law of our land and backed by the European Bill of Rights. That same Bill outlines the democratic right for members of a trade union to go on strike. Which is all fair and well, it’s a blessing to live in a country which allows such freedoms. But are those freedoms not being taken for granted when the definition of “democratic” is twisted to the extent that it was by the RMT?

Talking about yesterday’s High Court judgement, Bob Crow, head of the RMT, twirped on about the decision “not being about ballot boxes”, instead choosing to claim that the whole democratic system was against him and actively seeking to put the lives of the people who ensure our trains get us from A to B every day in danger.

So why were ballot forms sent to signal boxes that don’t exist? And why did some that do exist not receive any?

This is the second time that the courts have overturned a decision to strike (remember BA at the end of last year?). In both cases the unsuccessful defendants moaned about the courts taking away their democratic right. But strikes have successfully taken place in the past, why would these ones be treated any differently? The British Airways cabin crew were refused strike one because the union balloted members who would not have been working at the time of the action, as did the RMT. My annoyance on this matter isn’t their cause – the thought of more trains with less staff to maintain them frightens me – it’s that they tried to go ahead, effectively holding to country to ransom by restricting our the freedom to travel, without following the basic rules of striking.

Union leaders are becoming reminiscent of the toddler who screams down a supermarket because their mum won’t buy them sweets, only they’re old enough to know what they’re doing. They’re told what’s right, they don’t do it, then complain when they’re told off for it. If they’re going to cause us the aggravation of not being able travel somewhere we’d booked to go weeks previously, don’t be so lackadaisical about it. They’re losing our respect quickly enough by holding us up in the first place, if they do so for a justifiable cause (tick) and with maximum attention to what should be the basics of ‘asking everyone involved what they want to do’ (big red cross – see me) then they might claw some of it back.

The clincher was the margin of yes votes that set the strike action in motion, to the noes – only 54% in favour. Bob Crow’s excuse was the “painting the Forth Bridge” line – by the time he’d counted all the members and workplaces, some people had been promoted, some sacked, some died. So what about the signal box that closed 50 years ago which received a ballot box? It may take that long to paint a suspension bridge, but a headcount? According to one BBC News report: “in 67 locations the numbers of union members balloted exceeded the total number of employees working.“1 A mere technicality?  Is it sceptical to ponder the possibility that perhaps they were scared of things not going their way? The toddler eyeing the sweets, figuring that mummy might not let him have them and going straight for the almighty tantrum, ignoring the inconvenience to the other shoppers trying to dodge the screaming ball of tears and snot sprawled on the floor. Toddlers don’t know understand what they’re doing of course, they only have their eyes on one sugary prize.

If any trade union who wants to plan action that’s going to appear selfish and annoying to an unsympathetic majority wants their “democratic” rights respected, be respectful enough to do it on our terms. You’re causing us days of hassle because of an argument with your bosses, and you’ve got the blessing of the law to do so. But follow it. No matter how big an organisation you are, you’re in the minority. Eighteen thousand of you to sixty one million of us.2 Don’t cause yourselves further embarrassment and us more reason to either laugh or throw something at the TV by crying when things don’t go your way.

As it happens, i’m writing this from the relative comfort of the East Coast Mainline, surrounded by what appears to be the relieved faces of both passengers and staff (who would have found themselves working double to make up for striking colleagues, according to one ticket inspector).  Even the little kid behind me crying his eyes out for whatever reason can’t spoil trundling through the stunning Scottish borders.  The big kids crying their eyes out shouldn’t be allowed to either, without good reason anyway – they are old enough to know what they’re doing.


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Talking “to” rather than “about” us

Among how many circles is the concept of discussion completely alien?

Ironically, despite emerging from the debating societies of the top universities in Britain, politicial leaders are afraid of arguing policy with each other outwith the confines of parliament and away from the soundbites issued to them by their advisers.  They do not dare answer questions to which they haven’t already been given answers.  They wouldn’t know what to do if someone threw a follow up question at them.  And they refuse to share oxygen with those whose views are at polar extremes to theirs for fear…of what exactly I am unsure.  This all changed this week when, twice, we it was hinted at us that politicians might be willing to exit their bubble and talk to each other without the meticulous planning of the media stratigists, without controlled applause and planned standing ovations.

Jack Straw has agreed to appear on BBC Question Time alongside Nick Griffin of the BNP, thus allowing a studio audience to pose questions which will inevitably result in the two men talking to each other.  Why is this such a terrifying prospect?  Any intelligent viewer has the ability to distinguish between policy and propeganda and experienced politicians who know their party line well enough should easily be able to justify their views on policy such as immigration.  In order to denounce the disgusting fascists who feel that they can integrate their filth into this country we need to engage them in discussion.  We need to understand why they believe what they do in order to argue the case against them.  And this discussion must take place in public, overseen by a neutral chair and scrutinised by a live participating audience to avoid accusations of backroom intervention.  I cannot usually fault the actions of United Against Fascism, one of the most important activist groups in existance today.  But trying to stifle this discussion restricts the free speech which the extreme right so hate.  Yes, the BBC are giving the BNP a spotlight.  But they will be sharing that spotlight with party members and citizens from all sides of the political spectrum, including the left, all of whom will have the opportunity to counter their arguements.  We need this debate to prevent the BNP from becoming the sympathy seeking extremist underground movement which they publicly appear as at the moment.

Disappointingly, after having just watched Gordon Brown’s keynote speech to the Brighton conference it appears that any mention of a ‘Brown vs Cameron vs Clegg’ public debate was removed at the last minute, as reported by the BBC.  The very idea of these three men in one room in front of a camera is being described as “historic”.  Has this idea geninely never in history been considered?  It seems so simple, and yet when you think about it, it’s vital.  We don’t see our politicians speaking in public unrehearsed, leaving the civil servants and the office staff free to decide what the public hear.  Not that I for a second believe that any of the parties will allow a completely unplanned debate, but that the idea is being entertained is encouraging.  Lock them in a room with a confident broadcaster, who will shout policies at them and leave them to argue which of them can implement them best.

All that has shocked me is that the idea of “talking” publicly was so incomprehendible in the past.  If we want an honest view of our politicians we need to strip them bare of any preperation by the advisers who guide them by the hand through media activities and interviews and leave them to the mercy of the British public.

Just don’t let Channel 4 get any ideas.

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