Why I Am Saying No to Mainstream Journalism

A lot of people have asked me if I am going to go into journalism when I finish university. It seems like a natural progression, considering I have been involved heavily in student media over the past three years. However, the answer is no. I am choosing to step away from the mainstream titles that tend to attract some of the best student journalists in the country.

The reason is encapsulated in a tweet written by James Bloodworth, a well-known journalist for a number of publications including the New Statesman. The explosion of the digital journalism space and the expansion of titles such as the Independent, Guardian and Huffington Post online has created a culture where content is effectively free. Akin to unpaid internships, online journalism and especially student content has been made almost a requirement to get into the industry. However, unlike other content, it is very rarely compensated. Put bluntly, a lot of young journalists are getting mugged off.

It is no secret that you need a portfolio to get a job these days. You need to show you can write (at a minimum!) as well as effectively sell yourself as a competent reporter. Fortunately, there are many outlets at many universities that provide you with the experience to hone your skills. Again, these are often unpaid, but considering student media is not-for-profit, any revenue is reinvested back into the vision and opportunities of other students. It is a self-fulfilling cycle. However, national titles have now started to dabble in “Student Brand Ambassadors” and student contributors who run student sections of their websites. It provides a very exclusive club for recruiters to cherry-pick some of the best talent. And most of them are either unpaid, or paid an absolute pittance.

There is an argument to suggest that the importance of using the title’s exposure to push through a story, or the potential of a job, far outweighs any sort of pay-per-article system. It sounds logical, but they are making money. Every piece you write generates more social traction through you inevitably sharing it, with more people at your institution engaging as a result and an expansion of their brand. The multiplier effects are countless; and taking a note from the banks, if brands manage to nab students early then you can often keep them for life. However, the originators and curators very rarely get anything at all.

That is why the paywall with The Times and The Sun has inevitably failed to entice young people. We have effectively been priced out of a market we are not even a part of yet, endorsed to produce free content in order to get a “leg up” into the industry. It actually makes me feel sick, because it undermines the fantastic work that student media and journalists do. We should not sacrifice our principles, or the value of our work for titles that will inevitably die if we stop buying into them. We are worth more than that and we can stand up to it.

I will not perpetuate a culture that continues to take advantage of the very people we cherish as part of our student newspaper. It is often difficult to get students to care about anything and it isn’t fair to take advantage of those that are often only trying to make the world a better place in their own way. Journalists (the good ones anyway) often take risks, put their necks on the line, face criticism and stand up to be counted in their writing. The reason I love student journalism is that there is no compulsive agenda, no fat cat boss to pay dividends to and no loss of integrity or quality. But more and more, I have watched friends and peers get laid off, forced to do work for free, whilst the biggest titles in the world profit from their hard work.

“Freelance” is the biggest farce in the industry. It means that you don’t get a full time contract. No stability, and incredibly damaging to the confidence of a fantastic calibre of future changemakers. So no. I will not pander to the Huffington Post, The Guardian or The Independent, unless they start to put their money where their mouth is. Start paying your online journalists – make sure that you reward them for their time and effort. The death of the paper industry just opens up every writer to exploitation and it isn’t fair.

I won’t stop writing, and there are plenty of platforms to do it. If you are a budding journalist, be a part of the citizen journalist movement. Educate your tribe first and build a value to your work. Don’t be afraid to charge and don’t let people take advantage. You have worth. Recognise it. And don’t sell yourself short. I believe in you…and if you need any more inspiration, then have a look at this from Rick Edwards.

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