(From left to right) Priscilla Baffour, Toby Granville, Joanna Webster, Claire Sanderson, Dan Wright
Social mobility in media will not be improved by recruitment initiatives alone; newsrooms must do more to cater for applicants from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds, according to a panel of newsroom leaders speaking at an NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) event (19 September 2019).
"Lots of people still get their break in journalism by working for an extended period without pay, which naturally discriminates against individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds and those who don't live in big cities," said Joanna Webster, deputy global editor, visuals, Reuters, moderating the panel.
Various recent initiatives have cited the 'unspoken first step' of unpaid placements as the main motivation to financially support students with opportunities they would otherwise be priced out of.
Webster refers to latest industry-wide research into social backgrounds in journalism to demonstrate this point. In 2016, a joint study between City, University of London and the Reuters Institute for the Study for Journalism (RISJ) found that 94 per cent of journalists are white, with 86 per cent holding a university degree. More recent RISJ studies have followed up on this and warned that ignoring this issue will deprive newsrooms of key talent.
Recent Ofcom studies also cite social mobility as a key issue in the UK TV broadcast sector too. 60 per cent of parents of those working at UK-based broadcasters come from professional backgrounds - almost twice number of the working population figure. Compare that to the 26 per cent of parents from a working class background, which is 12 per cent behind the population figure.
Screenshot: Ofcom Diversity and equal opportunities in Television
The Ofcom study recognises the efforts of broadcasters to address this issue and concluded that it is something that will take time to improve.
Similarly, publishers like the Financial Times are paying attention too, said Priscilla Baffour, global head of diversity and inclusion, Financial Times. She has found that applicants from disadvantaged backgrounds do not even bother applying most of the time.
"People automatically assume FT is not a place for them, they think they aren't clever enough or they haven't been to the best university," she said.
"They take themselves out of the process, as a company we need to do more to go out there and tell them we want these people from diverse backgrounds."
Her role was created this year to provide oversight and accelerate a culture change in the newsroom. She explained that the publisher has gone into schools and youth centres to inspire future journalists.
She aims to break the information barrier and the network barrier; two barriers she still came across despite going to university, working for student papers and radios and networking within the industry.
"That information barrier is key: what are the roles of the newsroom? Let's be transparent around pay and what it takes to get to the next level," she explained.
"I remember people saying: 'you're not quite there yet'. What does that mean? How do you take that feedback and work with it? I'm all for open and honest feedback."
That is one half of the issue though, with many people not pursuing journalism because they feel without the contacts, it is a futile effort.
"It's really important that when you are mentoring talent, you open them up to your network. Take them to award ceremonies, to a meeting and let them have real insight to your day-to-day job," Baffour added.
"The key part of mentoring is sponsorship: it's about you bigging your mentee up when they are not there."
The final barrier Baffour touches on is a financial one, which other organisations noted are being looked at seriously.
Toby Granville, editorial development director, Newsquest, said that the media group has a paid apprenticeship scheme to address that very concern.
"I was concerned that there wasn't necessarily a job at the end of the line, and I didn't want that handing over the apprentice's head while they were trying to study," he said.
As vacancies emerge within regional newsrooms, they are replaced with apprenticeship positions. To date, there are 50 apprentices working for Newsquest across the country and the editors, despite initial reluctance, said it has helped the titles focus their digital efforts.
"Because they have digital skills and none of that old-school mentality, it's just a case of pointing them in a direction and they will deliver it."
Claire Sanderson, editor-in-chief, Women’s Health, also stressed the importance of paid internships and opportunities, including a programme called The Nest, a course open to people from any age bracket, education or other background to work on set projects. This may even result in a business proposition and a full-time job.
She said the onus is on the publisher to reach out to applicants and provide these types of opportunities before the point of interview. She detailed how difficult it is for people from a working class background to compete with those from more advantaged backgrounds.
"I interview working class people who have crumbled in interview. It's been painful, they've been blotchy and red," Sanderson explained.
"Whereas when I interview people who have been through Oxbridge and privately educated, there's an innate confidence when they look you in the eye and answer in a measured way. It's no wonder they are getting through.”
Dan Wright, director of coverage EMEA, CNN International, agreed, noting how organisations equally must look to the barriers of progression for their staff, as well as those coming into the organisation."
"Rather than the onus being on the young person trying to get an entry level job, surely the onus should be on you as a manager or a leader to tackle that issue.
"The obstacles to working class people joining the newsroom are often invisible. They're the different attitudes, the expectations, the way they speak, the way you deal with seniors, the embarrassment about talking about money," Wright concluded.
Find out how to regain audiences’ trust by driving diversity in your newsroom at Newsrewired on 27 November at Reuters, London. Head to newsrewired.com for the full agenda and tickets
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