Friday, 24 August 2012

I've had enough...of journalism

Ah, sod it.  Three rants in three hours?  Why not?

I had an email from a magazine yesterday.  I’d pitched an idea to them. The editor loved it. They wanted the piece. Could they have X words by X date?  Yes, yes, yip, yip.  Except…right at the end…as a breezy afterthought… ‘Of course, we can’t pay you for it.’  As if it were the funniest thing in the world.  As if I didn't need their money; as if writing were just a hobby, a bit of fun.

It’s happening more and more.  Now everyone is a writer, magazines and papers (yes, even national newspapers in some instances) no longer feel the need to pay for content.  Why should they, when people are willing to write for nothing?  Just as they no longer need to pay for staff when they can get interns to do the work – for nothing.

Robyn's stuff... I love this girl.  :-)  
I talked to my friend Zoe about it. Her daughter is trying to get a job in journalism.  ‘Please tell her not even to go there,’ I’d said (having seen the writing on the wall years back) but Robyn was determined, focused, driven, talented (all qualities that, in the old days, would have seen her fly to the top).  She’s good, really good (and, trust me, I’m well picky).  So good, in fact, that she gets published all over the place – big glossy magazines. (check her out - click here)

‘Has it earned her a single quid?’ said Zoe with a deep sigh. ‘Has it fuck? She works part-time doing whatever paid grunt work she can get her hands on and interns the rest of the time – free, gratis, mugged.’ She paused and shook her head. ‘Your industry is evil.’

She’s damn right. It is.

And then she said this and, really, I couldn’t put it better myself.  So, if you don't mind, I’ll just let her rant on my behalf. 

‘Your whole industry has changed,’ she said. ‘And it’s still in a state of flux. Anyone can be a writer now, can’t they?  Just as anyone can be famous. It doesn't take talent any more. Look at the idiots they have presenting popular TV these days. Read any tabloid (if you can stomach it). And what about all those celeb mags (from Hello downwards)? They’re just full of salacious crap. A five year old could have written most of it. Gossip is all people seem interested in.

‘They said religion was the opiate of the masses. Not anymore. Gossip, tittle tattle and the 'Public Interest' (what a sick joke that is most the time given the way it’s used to justify the most appalling invasions of people’s private lives, phone hacking and so on) are the new religion. We don’t get the news reported any more, not facts, we get some idiot’s interpretation of those facts, Speculation, and sensationalism sells and it’s all about the bottom line. Sod quality and standards. Even Aunty Beeb is guilty. The lowest common dominator prevails.’

Go Zoe.  She’s right. I’ve talked about this before and, honestly, it’s not sour grapes. I’ve had a damn good run in journalism. I made a heck of a decent living out of it in the past and it’s taken me to amazing places and let me meet amazing people (and a fair few scumbags too, but hey).  But now? 
It’s coming to the point where you need to have a private income if you want to be a journalist.  Rates (where they are paid at all) have plummeted and expenses are non-existent.  So, if you’re asked to go and interview someone in, say, Manchester, you will have to stump up the train fare out of your (already meagre) fee. 

Does it matter?  Shouldn’t everyone have a voice in the media?  Shouldn’t it be open to all? Shouldn’t it allow in new blood?  Well, yes. But in some fields experience really does count for a lot and professional journalists have learned (often the hard way by getting their hypothetical balls crushed by some scathing editor) to check facts, to check sources, to get balanced opinions, to look all around the issue and put in the caveats.  And, see, here’s the interesting thing.  In the past, the newspaper industry was one of the few truly egalitarian workplaces.  Many editors worked their way up from the very bottom, from being the post boy.  Nowadays that simply can’t happen. 
A new career? 

Virtually all the good journalists I used to know have thrown in the towel and retrained.  Because they’re sick – sick of the dumbing down of the press; sick of being shunted aside for some celebrity whose copy will have been written by an unpaid ripped off intern; sick of jumping through hoops for less and less money (I now earn on average 60 percent less per feature than I did 20 years ago – yes, you read that right).

So really…I’ve had enough.  Time to find a new way to bring home the bacon. 

Yeah, I'll shut up now...and go chill.  *smile*  


Sandie said...

...true of your industry and unfortunately others too - in these recessive times corporations are cottoning on to the idea that desperate peeps are more than willing to give them a 'taster' of the talent they have to offer in the hope that it will 'lead to something' - does it bollocks - my heart goes out to those hundreds of supremely talented peeps who will never get a toe-hold while old hacks who can't cut it anymore hang on to their jobs - xx

Margaret Grant said...

That's crazy especially since you are already published. I Tweeted a link to this post. Unacceptable!!

Voodoo Spice said...

We've also seen already that if they can't get the writers or articles that they want, they'll nick it anyway - what was that subscription internet cookery magazine a couple of years ago which was just taking recipes verbatim, straight off people's blogs? It's not a great advertisement for arts and culture as a career, or an industry. Like pimping. Some poor wretches do the work, some greedy piggy takes the cash.

I'm fortunate. I write what I want when I want for nothing but my own amusement, and I get a bit of I.T. work which means others are enabled to go it alone as well. I don't have illusions about these things in such a flooded market. Or ambitions regarding unwieldy sums of cash for the taxman to enjoy. If people buy my books - wow. If people steal them and pass them off as their own - I'd hate to be them on the day they wake up and think they're me... or if my *ahem* 'made-up religion for my own sanity' turns out on the day of reckoning to be The One In Charge *gulp* ;)

We're all little voices saying the same things as each other as far as the big employers are concerned. Why are there so many out-of-work, penniless talented people in the world, while the print media churns out advertising and fillers? Because they have to keep themselves in work, and increase profits. If they were all making 60% less than they did 20 years ago, there would be no 'media industry'.

The only way to make any difference would be to stop giving it away en masse - but as you say - there's always someone, or somewhere they can steal or re-hash from.

I wanted to be a writer, and I have been one since I was 14. I achieved it the day I finished my first story, and started on the next one. The selling, for me, was never going to be a part of that. I only promote when I have stuff to give away free. If I wanted to sell myself or my talents in selling and promoting for a living - I'd be an Avon lady.

I hear some of them Avon-selling folks do really well. Maybe slip them a magazine or story of your own in with it :) xxx

Ross Mountney said...

A rant it may be but it's a really justified one! I feel the same. Good art has always taken second place to marketed art and celebrity! I hate it too!

Fennie said...

And they wonder why newspaper circulation has fallen? I used to produce an op-ed column for a Brussels webzine for which they paid me. (Not enough, but it was OK). Then they said,'we're going over to blogs' - please write a blog for us for free.
I said 'no.' But they had plenty of other people.

Frances said...

Jane, it increasingly seems to me that the entire workplace, marketplace, value-deciding place is in the midst of immense change. Not much of anything is as it was, even so recently as five years ago.

I certainly cannot predict where all of this economic/cultural change is leading us. Not even sure anymore who "us" are!

Over here in the States, we are in the final months of a big presidential election race. It is fascinating to see what issues are claiming the most press/publicity coverage.


family Affairs said...

It's very hard and I feel very sorry for the next generation coming up and trying to earn a living Lx

Sally said...

I agree 100 percent. In the bit of journalism I used to work in (business/tech) rates in 2001 were around £350-£400 for 1,000 words. Today they're closer to £250.

What that means for freelancers like me is that to earn a salary of perhaps £30k, you used to need to earn £2,500 a month - and that might be 3 or 4 decent features.

Today you'll have to do 6 or 8 features - and that's if you can find 6 or 8 places willing to pay, when well-meaning bloggers, amateurs and vendors are prepared to supply copy for free, or in exchange for a link, or for some desultory rate like £30 a feature because, hey, it's not like they need to make a living at this stuff, is it?

You could argue this is just market forces. Ten years ago content was valuable but today, with a media that's accessible to all, content has lost its value. So professional content creators like you and me don't deserve to be paid what we used to.

But that only works if you're talking about content like it's a commodity. When you're talking about professional writers who spend years getting to know an industry, building relationships with sources, understanding media law and sniffing out stories - that's not a commodity, is it?

I've been banging on about this one for 10 years or more, now, and I just find it soul-destroying. Because I see newspapers publishing the kind of articles I used to write - but now they're in sponsored supplements and advertorial, and they're paid for by the biggest companies in the industries they're about. Or it's amateur copy, written by someone who might know one aspect of a story very well, but who has no skill or desire to tell a whole story.

There's an old saying people get the press they deserve. And I genuinely feel in 10 years time professional journalism will have effectively ceased to exist and instead what we will have is the world as told to us by the corporations with the deepest pockets, and the amateurs with extreme views.

It's hard to have a functioning democracy without a healthy, independent press, but I fear that's where we're headed. And all we'll have to distract us is yet another empty-headed page about whether Suri Cruise is wearing a coat yet.


AndyD said...

All true, all true. Something similar started happening slightly earlier in TV, with 'runners' aka interns, being given more and more responsibilities whilst being paid zilch. This, obviously, resulted in TV being even more populated by kids-with-wealthy-parents than before.
I think, though, that to call the newspaper/magazine industry 'evil' isn't really applicable. The world of commerce is changing ridiculously quickly, and businesses are desperately trying to adapt in order to survive. It's more a case of headless chickens than evil masterminds, I'd say. In the past, businesses had the idea of the Sigmoid Curve, when they'd start planning the next phase of development almost before they'd peaked with their current phase; these days it all just moves so swiftly there's no time to do this. The technology is driving the show, basically, and the people in charge are falling over trying to keep up with it.

Expat mum said...

My daughter is majoring in Journalism in the YS and has already added a minor subject to her degree as it's a given that she won't eRn much. She spent the entire summer interning at a fairly respectable newspaper and wasn't paid a dime. She was even given the job of watering the plants!

Exmoorjane said...

@Sandie - Journalism has been 'sold' as a trendy glamorous career lately - hence it's hugely oversubscribed. Yup, it's a killer industry to break into now and I do feel desperately sorry for the new kids on the block. But equally a helluva lot of 'old hacks' (with huge experience) are being chucked onto the dump heap cos these young 'uns will work for nothing.

@Margaret - kind of you but being published no longer holds any kind of cachet. But thank you anyhow. :)

@VS - My mum was an Avon lady. I did think about going that route but I'm not wild about their products. But yes... I need to find some other way to earn a living, for sure. :(

Exmoorjane said...

@Ross - our cult of celebrity is just the most depressing thing. :(

@Fennie - I remember that - and damn good it was too. That's the trouble - we can make all the stands we like but there are always loads of people who will take our place. We are all expendable. Was the same with rights - if we'd all stood firm and refused to sign contracts giving all rights, the media would have had to back down but no way...very few of us stood firm on that.

@Frances - yes. I wonder what will emerge. And yes, your election is - as always - fascinating to watch.

Exmoorjane said...

@Lulu - yup, you know this all too well. It IS damn tough for the next generation. But, as I said before, bloody tough for us too. There is still work in online media and contract publishing - but it means a completely new way of working. Not sure I have the energy!

@Sally. Yes. Just yes. People don't realise who's paying for half the stuff they read. And yes, experience counts for nada.'s not talk about Suri...

@Andy - the accountants are now running the ships...hence money is the bottom line in a way it never was before. We no longer have any kind of free press. Everything is bought, one way or another. And now it's creeping into blogs too. Depressing.

@EM - it's funny, when I went into journalism, there weren't degrees in journalism. Some people went to the LCP but they were rare. Mostly we made our way up from the bottom, learning as we went. I started off in admin, cleaning the typewriters! Your daughter is wise to have a second string. I wish her all the luck in the world.

ain't for city gals said...

Just a quick opinion...all the young people want to make a living on the computer regardless of talent. We are the last of the small builders left standing in our part of Arizona...maybe 1 in 10 young people want to even consider manual labor. We don't give our manual labor away...our saying is "If we want to do something for nothing we can dig a hole and fill it back up again"...and it doesn't cost us a thing! ha! Magazines are total advertisements now...hardly an interesting article to be had.

Adrian Tierney-Jones said...

I think the rot set in during the early 1990s when the quality broadsheets decided to cover popular culture such as rock, an area that had been formerly dissected brilliantly by the likes of the NME (itself suffering a dumbing down in the late 1980s); word counts were cut, ‘design’ became important; then there were the freesheets and contract mags whose content was dictated by the client (I know because I was a deputy editor on one); the whole idea of journalism started to be debased. On the other hand, I do think that there is room for great writers but you also need a mixture of luck, right place at the right timeish and contacts to get through…

Nigel Summerley said...

Yep... you're right. Most of us have done our best to get out. And those who haven't got out say they wish they could...

Mairéad said...

Excellent piece. I work for a provincial paper and reckon I'll be extremely lucky if I can work in it until I retire (15 years time hopefully ). Have a teenager who is an excellent writer but unfortunately have to tell him not to even think of going into journalism. It's the same story everywhere, news is being dumbed down, staff numbers cut and then 'they' wonder why sales fall and off we go on another round of cuts. Quality and public service doesn't exist any more, at least not in the boardrooms.

The bike shed said...

I've worked all my life in and around newspapers and magazines, and have long thought of journalism as a vanity profession - by that I mean a profession with pretty high status in the eyes of others, but actually very poor rewards and working conditions.

For twelve years I worked in Regional Press and agree entirely about the egalitarian ( I would say meritocratic) culture. But today the regional newspaper industry is in structural decline and the same for magazines too - in response publishers cut the editorial costs, increase cover prices and hope to maintain and advertising revenue - then scratch their heads when it doesn't work - duh!

Blogging probably doesn't help freelance rates, but I think it's a very minor impact. Perhaps it encourages publishers to think they can get 'words for free'. Could ramble on for yonks about this but won't.

Go and teach writing and communication to corporates - that's my tip / advice; good fees, nice hotels, definitely a market for it!

All that said - I was thrilled when the advance copies of my book arrived last week; eight years work and I doubt I'll make a bean - but that's not always why we write!

Liz Fairbrother said...

Well said and its not a lot easier for Editors either who keep having budgets cut and are breezily told by managers to "lighten it up" because readers can't concentrate any more. I cringed all the way through Electric Ink on radio 4 because it could be our office. I feel a lot less guilty having read this about thinking about making a move into collectibles and markets. Time off for good behaviour.