It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
Equating the state of journalism to the French revolution is far-fetched, I admit. But my point is: perspective is key. Starting an article with business wisdom instead of ripping off Dickens is just plain boring. But journalism is a business focused on pulling readers daily, all to be rewarded with eight seconds of their time. This is purportedly the average attention span of someone in the 21st century, who is also listening to another journalist on the radio while waiting for yet another one on TV to stop talking so The Bake Off can start.
What a god-awful career or calling this makes, and why would anyone want to get paid peanuts to put so much effort in for so small a response? In case you missed the good news, Forbes ranked ‘journalist’ as the fifth worst job in 2012, below ‘waiter’. What fun.
Perspective matters. I, for one, dived into journalism with both eyes wide open. Sure, it began rooted purely in ego, when aged eight, I fancied seeing my byline in the National Geographic. Journalism became more attractive when I discovered I liked writing and that it came easy to me. Three consecutive English teachers grudgingly agreed my writing wasn’t dreadful. My love for journalism was further cemented a month into my internship at a 20-reporter national daily when I, a night owl who loves the drink and has zero dress sense, saw senior journalists turn up at noon, nursing a hangover in jeans, slippers and socks. It was love; I was in for the long haul.
Then I worked for two years with a small business paper in Malaysia, where I learnt to think of my own stories, to set up interviews and to keep contacts for in-depth features. I deployed 3,000 words each on unemployment insurance, solid waste management industry, insolvency issues and competition laws. In two days, I travelled through four states speaking to farmers, fishermen and hotel owners. I went to Hong Kong with a compact camera to report live on four days of conferences on Asian capital markets and private equity. When the big yearly anti-government protest for free and fair elections came around, by god, I found a business angle, insisted on covering the protest, and experienced the joy of being tear-gassed and running away from baton-wielding policemen, worrying more for the £2,000 camera my photographer was protecting than for my photographer. I was shortlisted for a Young Journalist of the Year award. And still, I think journalism is a business.
Is this a cynical and indifferent view of journalism? I did not become a journalist in pursuit of the truth, to change the world, or to rub shoulders with the rich and famous. I was getting paid to write, while working with people who understood me, who had amazing vocabulary, and who, once drunk, had more opinions than an entire Liberal Democrat conference. Interviewing people from different backgrounds, each championing different causes, was just icing on the cake.
Nevertheless, I never disabused aspiring journalists of their notions of spreading understanding and making the world a better place. They needed some motivation to join an industry that was being hit by layoffs and moral ambiguity, while producing less and less quality writing. So what if they joined me with rose-tinted glasses?
In both the UK and Malaysia, many see the imminent death of journalism with the growth of free news offered by new media. But that’s what happens when you think of journalism in the narrow confines of column inches. Print may be dying, but journalism definitely isn’t. Admittedly the prognosis is grimmer in the UK, where the newspaper is practically a national institution.
One, that has, in recent years, scorned the emergence of Internet news providers and is now scrambling to carve an online presence for itself. Some have been caught sleeping, like the Sun, realising that all they had was reach and availability, but no content. Yet others like the Financial Times (FT) saw that its readers were willing to pay for specialised content. So FT charged for its online content, and then rolled out apps and other information services for subscribers. Its operations head Mary Beth Christie recently announced that with the digital move, FT now employs 650 journalists, ‘more editorial staff than during our history.’
However, to say that FT saw the blue niche in the saturated red ocean that is news providing, is nonsense. Newspapers started diverging into different niches almost 20 years ago, and it would only follow that this trend of paying for niche content – that has obviously taken time and effort – would continue online.
For years, newspaper readership has been dropping. Readers have complained of the similarity of news, the lack of diversity in views presented, and fewer investigative and in-depth stories. To staunch the flow of fleeing subscribers, newspapers created dedicated desks, hiring former lawyers or law graduates to run the court beats, or biology grads to write on science and the environment. In America, independent regional papers focused on investigative features, scooping Pulitzers from under the nationals’ noses, while others veered towards into business reporting.
In a 2006 New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell examined how Jonathan Weil, a reporter at Wall Street Journal was tipped into looking into Enron’s finances. Weil then combed through Enron’s – then the darling of Wall Street investors – annual reports and quarterly earnings to expose its accounting fraud. Gladwell posits that Weil would not have discovered the fraud if he was not trained to decipher financial filings. This applies to other beat reporters too.
Budding journalists angling for a job with a national paper, armed only with practical newsgathering techniques, stand no chance. Editors have less time to train journalists in covering court, crime and business beats, so we novices have to learn on our own.
Take a look at the ‘top’ journalism schools – Westminster, Cardiff, Central Lancashire, Sheffield and the City University of London. Most recent MA grads have gone on to be editorial assistants or intern reporters with regional arms of BBC or ITV, regional papers, or even news aggregator sites like Huffington Post. The universities too have recognised this, and introduced courses like MA Financial Journalism or Science Journalism.
Journalism’s got a technicolour dream coat on now, and if journalists cannot take their chances with so many opportunities, they can only blame themselves. Investigative journalist Seymour Hersh said putting in the hours makes all the difference. For future journalists, those hours have to be channelled into learning a wide range of practical skills for all outlets, including online news.
For now, work with small publications to find your niche while experimenting with different styles of writing; where you are not separated from designers and photographers, and where you can pick up multimedia layout skills and camerawork on the job.
Stop dreaming of a 40-year career with The Independent. Dream instead of a 40-year career of good writing – written by you, a product of various experiences – with many stories published by different news organisations at different stages of your career.
[Submitted by Stephanie Augustin for assessment under the MD7104 Employability and Enterprise unit of the MA Journalism syllabus at the University of Gloucestershire in October 2013]