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Don’t blame media startups for low budgets, blame an industry refusing to invest in young diverse voices

A lack of paid traineeships and staff roles strangles the hope of a pluralist UK media from the bottom up.

05 Mar 2021

There was a disagreement among journalists on social media this week. This isn’t unusual; it happens regularly and keeps the baying mob entertained (see: discourse regarding writing for the Daily Mail). But this particular furore was the latest in a line of clashes that are symptomatic of a problem that, perhaps, needs spelling out. A digital magazine named Aurelia was at the centre, a self-sustaining Manchester start-up that publishes work by young people from marginalised genders, writers who are often people of colour too, living outside of London and looking for their first byline. Aurelia, like many media start-ups in this vein, was initially volunteer-led; they have recently started offering writers £40 fees for articles published on the site, mostly from funds out of the own pocket of the editors. 

This wasn’t looked upon fondly by a journalist named Jessica Evans, who runs a business hawking freelance advice to aspiring writers. Evans had previously critiqued Aurelia for its reliance on volunteer writers to the nearly 5,000 people following her professional Instagram account @thefreelancesessions. But on Wednesday she chose to once again rebuke them, this time for their low fees, in a series of Instagram tiles titled “High-paying places to send your pitches to this week”. 

In the post’s caption, Evans – who did not name the publication she was talking about at the time – wrote: “A high-paying special this week. We saw a ‘publication’ offering people £40 for an article this week. Let’s say that you spend just one day writing it. It works out at £4.40 an hour. That is lower than the national living wage of a 16-17 year old.” 

Kya Buller, Aurelia’s editor, saw the post and hit back. “Ok, @aureliamagazine is an independent, self-funded publication,” she posted in a Twitter thread. “We decided to put our own money into this and pay £40 an article.”. 

Others pointed out that Evans – who claims bylines at outlets such as the Washington Post and “world-exclusive” interviews with the likes of George Clooney – perhaps should be more focused on the exorbitant pricing of her “freelance clinics”. For £270, attendees can clinch three one-to-one sessions with her, that teach them “how to turn their ideas into super commissionable pitches or just general journalism writing & freelancing advice”. Upon the reveal of this detail, many journalists hurriedly declared they’d offer the same advice as Evans for free.

What is funny – a dry, grim chuckle rather than a peal of joyful laughter – is that both Aurelia’s constrained budgets and Jessica Evans’ ability to prise nearly £300 from skint writers desperate to land a commission, are two just two sides of the same tarnished coin. Both are born of a scarcity which doesn’t need to exist but does; a lack of opportunity within the media industry that boils down to a failure – or deliberate unwillingness – from those holding the purse strings to invest in journalism and create a pluralist media from the ground up. 

Put simply: there’s a dearth of paid traineeships that would allow young writers to be trained from scratch by media companies and ensure them some sort of paid employment at the end. These did exist once upon a time – they weren’t perfect, they were certainly elitist but they were there. They’ve now been swallowed by the greedy maw of corporate ownership, which demands profit over investment into quality journalism. There are fewer gigs, far less security and more people are having to carve out their own spaces, usually on a shoestring. 

Train for no gain

The disappearance of such routes into journalism comes at a time when we’re screamingly aware of the lack of diverse representation within the industry. UK media, we know, is 94% white; journalists are disproportionately concentrated in the south-east of England and more than half of the “top journalists” in the country went to private school, compared to only 7% of the population. This matters, of course, because journalism reflects our world back at us. The reflection beamed back by the UK media landscape is more akin to a funhouse mirror: warped and unrepresentative. This is what shapes the way people understand society. 

Five companies dominate 80% of media ownership (digital and print) in the UK: News UK, Daily Mail Group, Reach, Guardian and Telegraph. Local news tells the same story; 80% of titles are owned by Gannett, JPIMedia, Trinity Mirror, Tindle and Archan. Rather than these multi-million pound corporations giving rise to a wide range of opportunities for young, aspiring reporters, the opposite is true. 

Corporate owners, intent on chasing profit, especially in an era of declining readership, are only investing schemes for graduate journalists so far as to get cheap labour into newsrooms. These are often open to those only with existing qualifications, like those who have paid extortionate prices to attain a journalism degree from the likes of City University or Cardiff Metropolitan University (which boasts of its “#IndustryReady” graduates), with no guaranteed job at the end of their £9k a year course. Research found that of journalists who began their careers between 2013 and 2015, 98% had a BA degree. 

“In practice, modern newsgathering looks like cannibalising the work of other news outlets and wire agencies to produce stories”

Available staff roles in journalism have decreased significantly since 2001; by 2010, they were down a third and there was a parallel 67% increase in freelance journalists between 2000 and 2015. In addition, links with local news outlets that used to act as a talent pipeline to nationals have been severed by closures. Covid-19 has ushered in a fresh round of cuts and belt-tightening, while (increasingly fewer) newsrooms that do offer traineeships and work experience schemes have put them on pause during the pandemic. 

And what of those training schemes on offer? Realistically, the outlets only able to afford extra salaries of these trainees are either the biggest, with the cash to splash, such as the Murdoch titles, the BBC or Trinity Mirror group, or those being funded as part of schemes to improve diversity. The experience of young journalists in these traditional newsrooms is now a far cry from the image of the roving reporter. 

In practice, modern newsgathering looks like cannibalising the work of other news outlets and wire agencies (like Press Association) to produce stories, rather than going out into the community, building up a “patch”, with dedicated time to work on accurate, in-depth reporting. Trainee reporters are taught that “journalism” is pulling up the latest wire from PA and rewriting it in under an hour. Take the 2020 Tribune article that described an anonymous newbie journalist’s “normal working day”. 

“I get into work at 7 a.m. and check the Slack channel”, they wrote. “Ten minutes later, my bosses have given me two stories. These ‘stories’ are almost always total shit and usually consist of ripping exclusives from elsewhere or reporting that something inane is trending on social media.” 

No great surprise then, that a “large majority” of journalists surveyed for Reuters Institute in 2015 said that the time for researching stories had decreased and the influence of “profit-making pressures, PR activity, and advertising considerations” had strengthened. Most journalists, the report continued, believed their profession had “lost credibility over time”.

Out on a freelance limb 

This is all without taking into account the barriers that mean those who do make it to the churnalism mills are usually white individuals from middle-class backgrounds. For underrepresented voices, such as those belonging to people of colour, freelancing is often the route into journalism they are forced to take. Self-employment offers almost no opportunity for training; instead wannabe journalists have to figure it out as they go along. No wonder many have no idea where to begin and are desperate to shell out cash to the likes of Jessica Evans for some answers. 

An increase in freelance journalists looking to stand out in a crowded field has led to the proliferation of what I term the “freelance industrial complex”. It’s a cottage industry, where, in lieu of there being enough commissions to go round, the very act of being a freelance journalist becomes a source of income e.g. by offering costly “pitch clinics” or charging people for newsletters that contain reporting tips. The market? Other freelance journalists. Why beat the competition when you can profit from their desperation to make a living? 

“There is an unspoken consensus in mainstream media that collectively decides what issues are worthy of investigation”

Within the freelance world, you also have collectives of journalists who form their own outlets, usually alongside full-time work (some with limited experience in media) and initially with no external investment. These platforms are born of a desire to plug a gap in the UK’s media landscape, such as the massive underrepresentation of voices of colour. It’s how the likes of gal-dem, Black Ballad, Aurelia and plenty of other burgeoning publications were born. 

These publications may be volunteer-led or have rates lower than the likes of the The Telegraph and The Times. This is because the people who invest in those titles don’t have the same vested interest in investing in the work done by the marginalised voices writing for a magazine like Aurelia. Rupert Murdoch isn’t concerned in pouring money into a media project that spends time on topics like exploring transphobia in domestic violence services; he’s only concerned with output that either makes him money immediately, or ensures enough capital that he can call in political favours that make him money in the near future. This is not to the disregard the work that journalists at those titles do; it is just to acknowledge that there is an unspoken consensus in mainstream media that collectively decides what issues are worthy of investigation. These are ones that often do not seriously challenge the accepted order of things.  

It speaks volumes of the UK’s media landscape, for example, that a nakedly right-wing and ‘establishment’ news start-up like Andrew Neil’s GB News is able to raise £60m, and create 120 journalism roles, whereas the likes of Robyn Vinter’s Leeds-based outlet, The Overtake – tagline “Quality journalism from outside the straight, white, middle-class media bubble” – was forced to close this year due to lack of sufficient funding. 

Money talks

Start-ups that value public interest journalism, housing writers who challenge the centre-right status quo are likely to find it hard to secure permanent funding. As a result, it’s difficult to offer either competitive rates, let alone training programmes, when a publication is dependent on mostly arts grants (which can be removed year to year) or the goodwill of a few very rich people (whose goodwill might falter when the systems they have benefited from are directly challenged). 

Some models provide hope; there’s the independent members-funded co-operative The Bristol Cable which produces top quality investigative journalism and has invested in training journalists from marginalised backgrounds. But acknowledging that, without more funding, there just isn’t that much choice is an essential truth. A lack of investment in aspiring young journalists means the already underrepresented are even more likely to miss out on key training and the confidence such lessons instil. 

Free mentorship is extremely valuable but it’s trying to fill a hole left by the absence of sufficient paid schemes and funding. In a true pluralist media landscape, start-ups like Aurelia would be able to up their rates and the likes of Jessica Evans would not be able to charge £270 for nothing more than a few pitching tips without anyone batting an eyelid. That industry can only be built if there’s investment from a diverse range of titles built from the ground up, giving room for young journalists to earn a living wage while learning the tools of the trade like becoming confident with media law, using open source intelligence databases and basic data journalism. It feels like a far off dream but at this point, what have we got to lose by gunning for it? 

This article was corrected on 5 March to state that Jessica Evans did not confirm she had been referring to Aurelia. An earlier version mistakenly said she had.