Young reporters find new ways to break into journalism
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Breaking into journalism has always taken talent, tenacity and entrepreneurialism. Now young would-be reporters and editors also face the challenge of trying to gain a foothold in a contracting industry.
Many traditional news organisations in decline have now been joined by digital-only media companies that grew fast a few years ago but have found sustainable business models elusive. Hundreds of redundancies have been announced in recent weeks at organisations including BuzzFeed, Huffington Post, Vice and Gannett, the publisher that owns USA Today.
It is a bleak picture, but some young reporters are finding imaginative ways to fund a career outside these corporate frameworks. Hazel Sheffield, 32, makes a living travelling Britain to report from areas of the country she feels are underserved by the mainstream media — particularly after the Brexit referendum. It might seem like a dream job to many journalism graduates and it’s one she devised herself.
“I wanted to be out in these corners of the country where there weren’t many journalists asking questions,” she says.
Ms Sheffield is part of a new group of journalists taking advantage of alternative funding models such as philanthropy, non-profits, subscriber support and crowdsourced ventures. In her case, she won a £45,000 grant from the Friends Provident Foundation to create Far Nearer, a reporting project that explores how local economies are coping with austerity measures and Brexit.
She left her job as business editor of The Independent in the summer of 2016, after Britain’s vote to leave the EU. Ms Sheffield had no trouble finding stories to cover for Far Nearer: “It was really fortuitous timing.” She was ready to leave the confines of her office to report in the field, even if it meant leaving behind a sense of stability.
“Even if you work for a newspaper, it can be hard to say where your career is going next,” she says. “So many of my peers have been laid off. When I was at The Independent, we closed the [print] paper and half of the newsroom disappeared overnight.”
Before earning her postgraduate degree from the Columbia Journalism School in New York, Ms Sheffield worked as a freelance journalist. “I operate as I [always] have as a freelancer. I’m always planning a trip, or processing material from a trip, because part of the point of this [Far Nearer project] was to get out of town, get out of London, and break the media bubble,” she says.
Charlie Beckett, a professor in the Department of Media and Communications at the London School of Economics, says that these alternative funding models come at a pivotal time in the news industry. “I think there are a whole load of [charitable] foundations out there who have realised that if they’re going to work on democracy, climate change, poverty, all those things, then media is really critical,” he says. “It’s a growth area.”
Nonetheless, Prof Beckett does not think the advent of philanthropic and crowdfunded journalism campaigns will replace the industry’s job losses. While they might offer journalists the opportunity to help reinvent news, they also present familiar challenges: “Great insecurity, really hard work, and not much money, but that probably fits the job description for most journalism jobs at the moment,” he says.
Some of the new jobs are on crowdfunded media platforms such as The Correspondent, a start-up that raised $2.6m on Kickstarter last year. It is the English language version of an ad-free platform based in the Netherlands, which is in the business of “unbreaking the news”. That means collaborating with readers to offer in-depth reporting on stories that they feel mainstream news outlets do not cover.
Co-founder and chief executive Ernst Pfauth says: “We want to offer readers an antidote to the news grind.” More than 45,000 people contributed to the Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for the global version of The Correspondent, which is set to start publishing this year. Readers pay a fee to be a member, which means they can suggest and contribute stories for it to cover.
Glenda Cooper, a lecturer in journalism at City, University of London (where I also lecture), says that contributing to journalism funding campaigns can make readers feel like they are part of a team. “There is an idea among crowdfunded news that this is a different type of news,” she says. “It’s breaking the power of elites and audiences can have a more active, more equal part to play in the creation of news. That can be a very seductive proposition, I think.”
For aspiring journalists who want to work in a modern organisation, without worrying about the demands of an advertiser, or the legacy of a longstanding media brand, these new models can be appealing. New formats can promise audiences coverage that is untainted by scandal or perceived bias, but they still carry risk: “You’re swapping one pressure for another, I think, when you’re asking the public to fund either individual stories, or individual platforms,” Ms Cooper says.
Finding a job at a new journalism enterprise is not easy. When The Correspondent team launched De Correspondent in 2013 they had 1,800 job applications. Three journalists were hired from that pool.
Still, working for a new enterprise offers opportunities that trainee programmes at traditional newsrooms might not. “As a correspondent, we trust that you know the topics to be covered,” says Mr Pfauth. “It’s editorial freedom from the get-go.”
Tortoise is a UK based crowd-funded company which went live in beta testing with its news content app last month. It raised almost £550,000 towards its launch on Kickstarter, as well as attracting investments from backers such as David Thomson, chairman of Thomson Reuters, among others.
Co-founder and publisher Katie Vanneck-Smith says Tortoise will rely on membership fees to fund its journalism, which will be slower and more reflective than existing brands’ offerings. It hosts live conferences where members can meet and discuss coverage and ideas. Future plans include a news feed and a quarterly book.
For new journalists, companies such as Tortoise offer a range of experiences. “The young graduates joining us here get to wear multiple hats,” says Ms Vanneck-Smith. “They don’t get the formal graduate training programme, and two-week rotations; they get daily rotations, and not just editorial.” Their tasks could range from researching a topic alongside a more established journalist to helping with marketing, membership and design.
The number of aspiring journalists is, however, far greater than the number of available jobs.
Elena Cresci, 29, has a postgraduate journalism degree from Cardiff University. She is now freelance but has held permanent roles at established media brands such as The Guardian, as well as in newer organisations. She says: “It’s hard not to be cynical to a certain degree, because I am young enough that I’m still building my career, but I’m old enough to also remember when all of the new digital media outlets seemed to be the answer to all of our woes, and you can see what has happened to them.”
Ms Cresci has seen entire departments at media organisations expand and contract when technology companies such as Google and Facebook switch their strategies. “Journalism is not meant to be what’s trending on Facebook. It’s meant to be public service-type stuff,” she says.
“The pool of freelancers is getting bigger and bigger,” she adds. “It’s an industry that is reliant on freelancers, but also won’t pay us enough to make a living wage sometimes.”