Broadcast journalist filming group of people
Credit: by Vanilla Bear Films on Unsplash

A couple of weeks ago, the recently appointed new chair of the Social Mobility Commission, Katharine Birbalsingh, set out her "new vision of social mobility" in her inaugural speech in the role

She wants the UK to stop focusing on "rags to riches stories" and start celebrating "those taking small steps up," for example, parents who go from being unemployed to having a job i.e. she believes those from low socioeconomic backgrounds need to lower their ambitions in favour of small incremental gains. 

Lee Elliot Major, professor of social mobility at the University of Exeter says the question of absolute social mobility has always centred around the question: how much better off are you than your parents? Through this lens improvements in social mobility in this country are on the decline. 

"Everyone is doing better apart from the Millenials," says Major. "We're in an era of declining opportunities."

Long live riches to riches stories in the media

If the media were to follow the vision set out by Birbalsingh, what would lowering ambitions mean in the case of those working in the media specifically? In my opinion, the answer is quite alarming: the presence of even fewer journalists from lower socioeconomic backgrounds in local and national media. 

Our industry is already facing a titan task of reversing the lack of diversity in newsrooms - and failing; focusing even less on achieving real socioeconomic diversity in the media seems hazardous.

Indeed, as the latest National Council for the Training of Journalism (NCTJ) diversity figures show, the media is getting posher. Worse, routes that were once open to local aspiring journalists are now either closed or not providing enough stability or income to make them viable and attractive.

Having someone to look up to, who shares your origin, background and struggles makes becoming a journalist, or achieving anything in society, seem more attainable, as award-winning journalist Dhruti Shah explains.

"Those stories help inspire people to think they can do it. Especially if those role models are down to earth."

Journalism’s never-ending perfect storm

Current diversity schemes do not seem to provide the large-scale impact the media desperately needs. 

According to Major, who was already looking into these issues in 2006 with the Sutton Trust, it was a "perfect storm then and remains a perfect storm now."

He continues, "We were told then [that the media] would become even more privileged in the future."

And it is true. So, what is that perfect storm made up of?

Low pay, instability and productivity demands

One of the specificities of the media sector right now is the low pay offered, not only to junior staff, but to more senior ones too. 

According to Save The Student, the average graduate salary in publishing and journalism in 2022 can range from £15,000 – £26,000. That can be a minimum wage for a role which requires a university degree - sometimes a Master's degree.

In addition, salaries vary enormously depending on the employer, the size of the organisation, the type of work done ("digital" and "social" roles seem to pay less) and the location of the role, according to sources like JournoResources or Glassdoor

This poor pay does not even take into account the upfront costs of entering the industry, incurred when taking on unpaid or poorly paid internships - something PressPad’s recently relaunched host-mentorship scheme tries to tackle.

Some editors have "raised concerns about the issue, saying there currently are "more jobs and fewer strong candidates" than at any time they can remember". You begin to wonder whether after graduating and discovering the harsh realities of the industry and the poor pay, it is a question of interest or viability.

It is little surprise that aspiring journalists and students may turn to communication, PR or marketing roles, where they find much better pay prospects and career progression. 

When asked how hard it was to make a living in the industry, Hayley Finch, journalist, editor and owner of the Animal News Agency says, "It's possible. It's just that much harder, and you're already exhausted from working other jobs.

"So when you get work, you don’t tempt fate. Your rent is riding on it."

While freelancing has grown into a way for students to break into the media, instead of working on local news, staff jobs have become even less secure. Over 200 local papers in the UK have closed since 2012, and redundancies in national and local media are commonplace. 

Even experienced freelance journalists do not make all their income from journalism, as Anna Codrea-Rado shared in her newsletter in 2020, and research survey showed in 2015.

It is a change from how the industry used to work, increasing the generational divide in newsrooms happening concurrently. 

"Attitudes are changing but there is still a big divide. Older journalists want to keep doing things their way, including how they judge talents," professor Major tells me. "What is interesting is that the rest of the world is moving on."

Centralisation of jobs and cash to the capital

While all jobs have been made less secure, David Stenhouse, CEO at the John Schofield Trust, says that while news deserts have formed outside of London, many media companies have concentrated their efforts on the capital. It is a far cry from the picture twenty years ago, where sustaining journalists were in rewarding, secure jobs, which enriched their local communities.

Stenhouse acknowledges the efforts made by broadcasting organisations to decentralise to the regions. But he is cautious about the impact it will have, as "most decisions could still be made in London".

The remaining independent local papers have to battle the centralisation of funding for entry-level roles, as revealed by Natalie Fenton, professor of media and communications and founder of the Media Reform Coalition, in a parliamentary evidence session on sustainability of local journalism.

“In the last year of the local democracy reporters scheme, 85 per cent of the funds went to the big three publishers." Adding that independent publications are struggling while "the likes of Reach, returned £22.6 million to its shareholders in the last year."

No clear and fair path

Despite the NCTJ or the Broadcast Journalism Training Council (BJTC) providing industry-wide recognised qualifications, and journalism being a trade learned on the job, there is no clear path into the profession. As Shah explains, connections are everything.

"You need a sponsor, someone to give you a break," she says "It’s easier to make luck when you already have access to opportunities in front of you.

"Posh people don't call it networking. They just introduce their friends to each other, go for brunch, and drinks. It’s much more instinctive."

This sometimes results in having journalists without any formal media law training, something Shah has observed many times, while aspiring journalists from less appreciated backgrounds will be expected to provide a qualification or take part in a low-pay traineeship.

Besides access and financial resources, another issue related to entry and retention in the industry is confidence. Finch hits the nail on the head when she stresses: “It’s not just feeling like an imposter, but being treated like one.” 

Journalism is also not as glamorous as it is made out to be, or perceived to be from the outside looking in. The trade is difficult, it is for that reason that socioeconomic diversity is so important, Finch continues: "We are missing out on the great reporters: empathetic, accurate and coming up with the best stories."

What needs to be done?

For a start, we need data. Like for all strategic objectives, you need targets and a clear definition of what being from a lower socioeconomic background means. If you can not measure it, you cannot manage it. 

But targets without accountability are not going to take us far. The media itself holds fast to its mission to hold power to account, but if it is not open to being held to account itself, especially on the make-up of our workforce and the impact that it has on the quality of journalism. This risks both rank hypocrisy - damaging to levels of trust already taking a hit - and improvement inertia.

At PressPad, we often discuss what solution could counter this trend: reporting. An independent body or commission would ensure media organisations understand their responsibility, and keep to long-term goals.

We are not starting from scratch, though. Many initiatives led by charitable organisations in the industry already exist, like the John Schofield Trust, PressPad, the NCTJ’s Journalism Diversity Fund and the Media Trust

Finding a home for such a commission is a moot point without buy-in and engagement from the industry.

Properly-funded secure entry-level jobs, providing real opportunities outside of London and, practical support for aspiring journalists to apply and take up such opportunities, like mentoring and peer mentoring, and expenses for accommodation, travel and per diems are only the start. 

Oversight and updates on their progress publishing data relating to the socioeconomic background of employees, and social mobility networks to provide a steady stream of relevant grassroots solutions to management are the next step, once this pipeline of talent is established.

"There are good intentions at the top, but there is a challenge in the implementation," declares Shah.

It is not an impossible task either. It just requires real commitment from the media and not just words and timid, limited actions. Other industries in the creative sector are ahead of us, it is time to catch up.

Camille Dupont is a French NCTJ-trained journalist working with PressPad on improving diversity and inclusion in the media.

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