Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Re: Is there any such thing as a career in digital journalism?

Like many aspirant journalists, I began my early twenties with romantic notions of what a career in journalism might mean for me.

Truthfully, I did hope I might find myself writing politics for The Economist, or become an intrepid war correspondent for The Telegraph. I snigger at that level of naivety now, but most youngsters start like that.

I was just watching a video of a lecture given by Felix Salmon, on the dearth of careers potential in journalism, to the Perugia International Journalism festival, called "Is there any such thing as a career in digital journalism?It is really an add on to his February "dear budding journalist" (don't do it) blog post. There is some hard truth to Mr Salmon's words, though they make for bitter listening. It's worth adding some more words, however.

I'm one of Mr Salmon's many followers on TwitterHe used to write for the same company I work for: Euromoney, the trade specialised financial publishing arm of DMGT. Mr Salmon has made a name for himself, mostly by his reporting on the financial crisis, nowadays for opinionated freelance, online and bloggingI enjoy his not-too-serious online aesthetic, particularly the Withnail & I ("I'm going to be a star!") Twitter cover image. 

agree with most of what Mr Salmon says about the poor prospects for today's crop of cub online reporters, working in the unforgiving environment of digital journalism, the odds within which you can rely will stay stacked against their success. He must view himself as an exception to the rule, perhaps even in the "top 1%": those "star journalists" at the apex of the hack pantheon.

I recently reached thirty years of age. I've been working in journalism for eight of those years. In that time, whether by luck or guile, I think I've been moderately successful, although largely not in the ways I'd once hoped. I don't write for one of the nationals, and I don't report from conflict zones. 

Instead, I'm the editor of a niche financial magazine (digital and monthly print), based in the City of London. I'm fairly well travelled (my grubby, soon-to-expire passport has few unstamped pages left).

I've gone some way to specialising in writing about risks, their management, transfer, and related rule-making, for a corporate readershipAnd I have somehow squirrelled enough away to recently switch from forking out rent to paying off a sizeable mortgage.

So that is my first rebuttal, represented by me. There is not just Mr Salmon's "top 1%" of celebrity success story journalists who can monetise "personal brand", followed by the 99% mass of doomed youth, struggling to pay their bills or else have moved back home with parents.

There is a sizeable middle group of inbetweeners, who do manage to stick it out with reasonable (if not stellar) earnings and job opportunities. That said, earnings are still better elsewhere, so the size of this middle group is  regulated by the lure of the siren call into PR, at one stage or other (never say never).

Trade journalism is a relative haven in this space. Salaries, while nothing to scream about relative to other graduate career choicesare generally higher than the paltry sums offered at struggling local newspapers.

When Mr Salmon talks about a "glimmer of hope" (aside from the 1% of star reportersand "deep subject matter expertise" as a traditional advantage, this is what he means. 

Finance, energy and technology are among the best paying industries to write for. I know several reporters who left jobs at local news rags (still seen as the feeding schools for the big papers), because the salaries were too low to live well. Trade was the happy medium.

It was trade specialty journalismafter all, in which Mr Salmon originally got established, before being plucked from relative obscurity by the global financial crisis to more mainstream blogging and the events circuit.

"The way I got scrambling up the ladder was because I happened to have a bunch of expertise about debt markets at the time when there was a big financial crisis, and that was really useful for my career, even though it was really dreadful for the planet," he notes.

Secondly, the socioeconomic background of journalists is becoming increasingly skewed. This is bad news if consumers (of whatever sort) want a better, more representative press community to reflect society's broader makeup. This problem seems to me a regional issue and a social class issue, with London as the case in point.

In London, high rents and costs of living make for less idealistic young career choices. In this harsh environment (which Mr Salmon alludes to) the prospects for young journalists are largely dictated by the location and assets of their parents, becoming in parts a regional issue and class issue.

There has always been nepotism, of course, while the immediate preference for Oxford and Cambridge graduateamong the big mainstream news organisations does play a part in encouraging public school types. (Full disclosure: I attended a fee-paying public school, before studying at King's College, London.) 

When I started on a graduate scheme at another financial publishing house, in 2007, the  starting salary was barely enough. You could afford beer after work, live in a dive, and maybe one week's cheap annual overseas holiday. Saving meaningful amounts of money in London was out of the question unless you were prepared to live a miserable existence. Some people soon dropped by the wayside, mostly into slightly better paid entry level PR and marketing jobs.

Well-to-do parents help: they can pay their kids' rental costs; provide monthly top ups; give them 'savings' to burn through; or provide a rent free base if mummy and daddy live in the London suburbs or within the prosperous home counties' London commuting orbit.

In those circumstances, the dynamics change dramatically in their offspring's favour. Suddenly it becomes possible for the aspirant hack to avoid paying rent and save or spend a reasonable level of disposable income. While the upper middle class can afford this, the rest can't. Furthermore, companies will keep hiring young, cheap reporters increasingly drawn from this demographic.

Follow me on Twitter @David_Benyon.