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Better value journalists for a thriving news media

A bright future is within the grasp of the UK’s news media – but it is not assured. It requires imaginative cross-industry effort and resources: fail at this, writes Tim Dawson, and a blizzard of conspiracy theories, infotainment, and relativism could overwhelm dependable news.

By Tim Dawson

Better value journalists for a thriving news media
The pay that journalists receive is dramatically lower than comparable occupations.

Let me start with the problem.

If one image from last year haunts me, it is that of Newsnight’s Nick Watt being chased by a mob across Whitehall. Some shouted ‘traitor’ in his face, others said far worse. When his attackers came to trial, Watt told the court: “I had become their prey, their quarry. It was like hunting a vulnerable animal”. He said that he, “felt a huge physical threat”.

This happened not in a dingy back street, or a decaying post-industrial wilderness, but in the heart of the government estate on the most energetically policed road in the country.

The protestors who harassed Watt represent the extremes of antipathy to journalists, but they are part of a continuum. An opinion poll last year by Maru, for example, asked a representative sample of the public how much respect they had for 28 different occupations. Journalists ranked second from the bottom.

Little wonder then that online persecution of media workers is rife. Research carried out by the NUJ in 2020 found that more than half the journalists surveyed had experienced online harassment in the preceding year.

Poor pay

Depressingly, the issue of how much respect we afford to journalists has deep roots in the industry itself.

The pay that journalists receive is dramatically lower than comparable occupations. A newly-qualified teacher can expect to earn £25,714, a nurse £27,055. A qualified, graduate journalist is doing well if they earn more than £20,000 a year even with the largest regional newspapers. In job security, holiday entitlement and pensions, journalists fall far behind. Finding your feet as an unpaid ‘intern’ is unheard of in hospitals and schools. In much of the media, it is the norm.

The situation for the vast army of freelances who sustain our news organisations is worse. A few days ago, one posted their remittance advice from the Daily Telegraph on social media. For a 500 word story published on page three of the paper, they had been paid £110. Two years ago, the same paper was paying 40% more for similar stories; twenty years ago, documented fees from that paper are several multiples of today’s rates. Other titles behave in much the same way. News UK, for example, which published record profits in August, has on occasion imposed ‘across-the-board’ ten-per-cent reductions in freelance rates.

Add to this the expectation that fewer and fewer journalists will do more and more work. Twenty years ago, a large provincial title might employ 200 journalists, whose entire efforts were focused on bringing out a daily paper. Those same newsrooms, in Leeds, Manchester, Edinburgh and Birmingham generally employ more like 70 news gatherers, who are today required to update online stories by the hour, create videos, podcast and social media content – as well as bringing out newspapers.

Technology has made possible much that is novel and enriching, but the centrality of creating a quality product is at profound risk if the available talent is stretched too far.

At the heart of all these issues is the esteem in which we hold journalists. It is a peculiar industry that allows its most critical resources to serve as public punch bags, risk imprisonment for undertaking their work, and to be remunerated so poorly that many are embarrassed to disclose their incomes. It is nothing new, however.

In 1909, Phillip Gibbs, arguably the most successful British journalist of the first half of the twentieth century, painted a grim picture of life on national newspapers. Journalists lived in poverty, were without job security, and undertook work so hard that few stayed long in the newsrooms. “Five months wear and tear in Fleet Street make a lot of difference to a man with a temperament”, he observed.

Since then, Fleet Street has become a metonym; the thundering presses and clannish compositors are gone. The hardships and precarity endured by journalists is depressingly consistent.

Encouraging signs

In the past couple of years, some useful initiatives have started to address a few of these issues. The National Committee for the Safety of Journalists, for example, has focused attention on the risks facing news gatherers. By convening this group and giving effect to its recommendations, the government has laid down an important marker as well as bringing together news platforms, journalists’ representatives and ministers. The UK could yet learn from the Dutch and the Danes – but ours is a worthwhile initiative.

Local Democracy Reporters (LDR) concentrates attention on the pivotal role the media plays in explaining the work of local authorities. I would sooner that they were funded other than from a precept on the BBC, but the recognition they afford for bread-and-butter reporting is welcome.

The same is also true of work within the Ministry of Justice whose Media Working Group recently published a ‘Journalists’ Charter’ codifying the reasonable expectations of those reporting the administration of justice. It is fundamentally a restatement of existing rules and entitlements. Nonetheless, a great many courts, particularly magistrates’ still go unreported, so even the slight lubrication to make journalists’ work easier is worthwhile. An obvious next step would be to devise a scheme a little like the LDRs to drag rather more of our justice system out of the shadows.

Dominic Raab’s promise to make London’s courts less attractive to those who harass journalists with self-serving legal challenges is welcome too, if belated. It remains to be seen if it will be successful, or how a shaken up government will impact the plan, but official recognition of the problem represents the start of a solution, however long that eventually takes.

Deep-rooted change needed

What all these require, however, is an over-arching campaign to raise the esteem in which journalists are held. This requires several strands and to address multiple audiences.

Schools must include information literacy in the curriculum. Without the ability to distinguish ‘something that turned up on YouTube’, with a BBC report, the fantasising teenager in the former is handed the chance to monopolise attention. For assured reporting to have a market in the future, its consumers need the tools to recognise its qualities. No less important, incidentally, is for schools to teach young people that for all that we can learn from the internet, in most cases, simply copying and pasting into their own work is as educationally counter-productive as it is unlawful.

Universities should be offering journalism as a course that requires talent and application. In too many, it is dangled as an option for those whose ambitions are uncertain and who have already performed poorly in their pre-higher education qualifications.

And as an industry, we need to work out how building the reputation of those who gather and process information becomes intrinsic to everything we do. How stories are presented and contextualised is one element – it should be possible for interested consumers to see how a piece has been created, both to find out more and to guarantee its veracity.

But we also need to treat journalists better as workers. Affording this should be hard-wired into the business models of all news platforms that aspire to credibility.

The scale of this problem can be glimpsed from a 2019 survey undertaken by the National Council for the Training of Journalists. It questioned those who had achieved its diploma three years earlier. Only sixty-six percent were working in journalism-related jobs. Similar analysis of teaching and nursing careers show a significantly higher retention three years post-qualification. There probably isn’t a single reason for this discrepancy, but it must be significant that on average, the journalists surveyed were earning £3,000 less per year than similarly-experienced teachers.

Undervaluing critical workers corrodes our industry. It wastes talent and training and makes hypocrites of those titles that campaign for better pay for key workers, while ignoring issues in their own newsrooms.

But if we could find a way to come together and affect a transformation, there is a truly glittering prize within our grasp.

Over the summer, I attended an event in the Netherlands that compared comparative approaches to promoting journalists’ safety around Europe. Among the speakers was Willy Valckx, a chief superintendent in the Dutch police. He is a big, powerful-looking man with a huge moustache and 30 years service under his belt. In tabloidese, he is a ‘riot cop’. Introducing his ideas on how reporters and law enforcers should interact, his message was as arresting.

“Journalists and police officers have much more in common than you might think,” he said. “At heart, the real job of both is defending democracy, and we both do that by trying to find out the truth”.

That is a sentiment I would be glad to hear leaders of my own industry expressing with such concision and enthusiasm. Match that with funding, and work to persuade policy makers and the public, and the opportunity for us to thrive will be greatly enhanced.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list to receive the magazine, please register here.