Why Do You Want to Be a Journalist?

The media industry is a bit of an anomaly when it comes to ambition. Jobs in the media are highly coveted. It isn’t too difficult to see why: journalism and other media jobs can provide opportunities to travel, to meet fascinating people, to do some social good or to write about what interests you.

It is very competitive. There are so many budding writers and journalists in the UK who have to take on placement after placement of unpaid work experience and do countless internships before landing their first job. They are often required to do expensive postgraduate courses and pass expensive industry-accredited exams before they are taken seriously.

They must write blogs, keep up with current affairs, write well , fast and accurately, interview well, read voraciously, develop contacts, learn multimedia and design skills, develop a social media presence, work long hours and get on well with all kinds of people. Cultivating that kind of a skill set requires serious hard work, and serious ambition.

But many people view ambition as the desire and act of striving towards success – be that riches, fame or achievement. And this is where many jobs in the media, and particularly in journalism, become a little less desirable. For one thing, it is quite possibly one of the hardest industries to break into that pays so little.

According to the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), the average starting salary for a job in reporting is about £15,000. This can drop as low as £12,000 for jobs on local or regional newspapers. The UK is incredibly London-centric and a majority of the country’s national newspapers, magazines and TV outlets are based in the capital, which happens to be one of the most expensive places to live, particularly on a trainee journalist’s salary. And particularly when faced with debts from both undergraduate and postgraduate education.

A job in the media is also far from secure. Just take a look at some of the headlines on the Guardian’s ‘media downturn’ webpage “Trinity Mirror to cut up to 74 jobs at national titles”; “150 jobs to go at IPC media”; “3,000 jobs go at Thomas Reuters”; “Reader’s Digest parent seeks bankruptcy protection”. It’s pretty harrowing stuff. The Guardian’s interactive map of job cuts in the media industry demonstrates that few media outlets across the country have managed to ride out the recession unscathed.

As many people will have picked up on, economic troubles are hitting newspapers hardest of all the media outlets. The advent of the internet has made newspapers largely redundant as a primary source of news (though I would argue they could still have a significant role to play). Circulation has been falling year on year for almost every national paper.

The Independent lost a massive 46% of its sales between 2011 and 2012 (though perhaps that is mainly due to the success of its cheaper, snappier sister paper ‘i’). Sales figures for the Financial Times dropped by 16% over the same period, and for the Guardian by 15%.

In fact, the Press Gazette’s analysis of newspaper sales is as follows: “Looking at the sales averages for 2012 as a whole, the Daily Mail and the Daily Mirror were among the best-performing titles in relative terms, keeping their print sales declines to 6 per cent and 6.6 per cent respectively.” It seems to me a little depressing to measure performance by the standard of who is the best loser.

So for the most part riches are off the cards for those entering the journalism profession, especially in newspapers. And fame? By its very nature the media industry feeds off fame, it gives fame a platform but it rarely produces fame from within its own staff. In fact few journalists receive due respect from the public, let alone stardom. Since the phone hacking saga erupted and Lord Justice Leveson levelled criticisms at UK newspapers, eventually deciding they needed a state-backed regulator, public trust in the media has plummeted. And then there was the BBC and Jimmy Savile.

A Yougov poll conducted in 2011 found that 58% of people lost trust in the newspaper industry after the phone hacking scandal broke, while 51% were more mistrustful of the entire UK media. Three quarters of the population think that UK media outlets lie to their audiences and 55% think content in the UK media has been dumbed down in recent years. Journalism as a profession is down there with estate agents, bankers and politicians in terms of public disdain.

So an ambition to break into the media industry often entails hard work, instability, a lack of respect, a lot of stress, long hours and low pay. Why have such an ambition? David Randall, foreign editor of the Independent on Sunday, provides a long list of reasons in his book ‘The Universal Journalist’ (p.3). They include:

  • To “provide a voice for those who cannot normally be heard in public”.
  • To “hold up a mirror to society, reflecting its virtues and vices and also debunking its cherished myths”.
  • To “ensure that justice is done, is seen to be done and investigations carried out where this is not so”.
  • To “promote the free exchange of ideas, especially by providing a platform for those with philosophies alternative to the prevailing ones.”

He adds: “If you can read that list without the hairs on the back of your neck beginning to stand up, then maybe journalism is not for you.” Few people do media for the money. The media industry has many vices, but it is extremely valuable to society. If there were fewer people willing to accept low pay and long hours for little tangible reward our media would suffer even more, and so would democracy.…