Thursday, 14 September 2017

Failure to pay is killing journalism

I have been earning a living as a journalist for more than 25 years, working in many areas of media. My experience has spanned national, local trade and religious press. I have also done some broadcast work. There have been some big stories like the foreign company caught illegally selling landmines at a government supported arms fair, the detention of individuals without trial and the living wage. It’s been fun but can it really be considered a living anymore? The answer to that one is a resounding no.

The thought occurred when attending a lecture, given by former BBC chief correspondent Kate Adie at the British Journalism Review awards. Adie made the very valid point that journalism is a skilled job and people need to be paid to do it. “Flapping about on the internet doesn’t put bread on the table. It’s a job a profession, not a hobby,” said Adie, who went onto highlight how journalism had been hollowed out particularly at local level. Courts, councils – none now receive the scrutiny they used to do, when the papers had fully staffed teams of reporters, instead now there are usually just a few  over worked individuals doing everything.

The historic memory that used to be present in local newspaper newsrooms, among those who made a career out of working on one paper, has long since gone. There is a huge and growing democratic deficit caused by this hollowing out of journalism.

No one though can blame young journalists for not hanging around on these outlets. They are badly paid, totally unable to survive unless supported by a well remunerated partner or rich parent. As a result once an individual has the skills they move on, often to PR.

I was struck a few years ago, when doing a story for the NUJ about what was happening at a council press office. When we met to discuss what had been happening, there were familiar faces all around – people who I’d known from the local papers now working in the local authorities press office. They had exchanged insecure poorly paid work as reporters for reasonable pay in a secure work environment at the local authority. This was further evidenced with the arrival of council run papers. Better resourced, they often picked up reporters from the local papers, ofcourse there would be no scrutiny of council activities from such organs.

Adie’s point about pay hit home particularly with myself, having seen outlets decline over recent years, pay has also reduced.  Recently, an online magazine asked me to write a piece about football – 2,300 words worth. The problem was they could not pay. Would you ask a plummer to come and fix your toilet, adding, I can't pay?
Another even more galling example came recently with the New Internationalist (NI) magazine. I have done a number of pieces for the NI over the years. I support their ethics and political standpoint in most areas; however on paying journalists there is still some way to go.

I have done a number of blogs for NI over recent years; they began offering a token £30 for a 500 word plus piece. Then they could not afford to pay at all – ok times were hard. However, the last piece I did for NI came out just after the magazine had raised £600,000 through crowd funding, giving readers a direct hand in the enterprise. Ethics were talked of a lot then, yet amazingly they still didn’t think to pay the journalist for blogs. Some gap in ethics me thinks.

NI ofcourse are not alone, a number of left wing titles rarely pay for anything. Indeed I think some pride themselves on this practice – somehow failing to understand the exploitative relationship between writer and owner of the means of production.

The internet was heralded as a great opportunity for journalists – more copy would be needed for more outlets. However, it has generally meant more work for journalists but less pay. I always find it incredible how so many publications think online means that the journalist does not have to be paid.

I was staggered a few years ago to do a piece for the Independent about the rail industry – up it went online, ads all around but ofcourse they couldn’t pay – not even a token amount. The internet has in many cases been used as an excuse to pay less and in many cases nothing at all to journalists.

Even in areas where publishers do still pay, a glance at the NUJ ’s rates for the job, reveals many paying the same or less than they did 10 years ago. There are very few that have actually increased rates.

This approach across the industry effectively cuts journalism out for all except those who have financial support outside of the job.

From a personal angle, it has been sad to see the various openings close. However, my own experience has been very much of seeing journalism go from my main job, earning a reasonable living, to as Adie would say, hobby status.

Frankly, there needs to be a long hard look taken at journalism in this country. The failure to pay journalists is killing the industry. It has played a role in leading to the growth of fake news. Everyone thinks they can be a journalist but, as Adie pointed out, journalism is a skilled job, requiring fact checking, objectivity and discipline. It is vital to our democracy, which will be the lesser for those outlets that do not now properly scrutinise politicians and courts at local up to national level. Society will be the loser, as well as many excellent would be and been journalists.

published in the British Journalism Review - September 2017 - "We can't live on air"

2 comments:

  1. Nice article Paul. I don't even bother reading the local papers any more as they are so often just blatant propaganda for the Council. The question now though is What are the NUJ going to do about journalists not being paid, even though websites are getting loads of money through ads? Also, I find it worrying how much papers etc rely on advertising because they are not behind a paywall - could this mean we run the risk of large advertisers calling the shots on the direction editorial pieces take? I'll buy you a pint next time I see you - not that illustrators get it any easier! Heather

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  2. some might question what the nuj do do - if I showed you the response I got when this article was pitched to the editor of the union's magazine, the Journalist, you'd be surprised I remain a member - a disgrace. good point on the ads, no doubt that direct editorial - the bigger point for media is that in areas like politics they have become so biased that they are losing the public, as the last election showed. look forward to the pint.

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