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October 14, 2022updated 07 Nov 2023 5:44am

Is the cost of living crisis risking an exodus of journalists?

By Andrew Kersley

Press Gazette has previously explored the impact the cost of living crisis is having on low-paid reporters, but what impact could rising costs have on the industry at large?

New exclusive analysis of pre-Covid figures by the NCTJ on the future jobs of course alumni by Press Gazette has found some 13% of graduates desert journalism roles for jobs in PR or the wider economy within three years. That meant less than half of those who qualify with an NCTJ diploma were working in journalism roles within three years after graduating.

Now academics and the National Union of Journalists are warning that the cost of living crisis, mixed with historic low wages, risks a worsening “exodus” of journalists as the industry risks becoming an “unaffordable profession” that leaves outlets struggling to retain talent.

John* graduated from his journalism MA in 2013 before working in a series of jobs in local and trade journalism. During 2020, he was made redundant from a trade title struggling with the financial impact of the pandemic. But while working freelance and applying for new jobs in the industry, he found the wages were far lower than what he needed to support his family.

“I’d look for a job in journalism but I was kind of looking at jobs and thinking that the pay hadn’t really gone up since I started six or seven years ago’,” he says, explaining that he eventually made the shift to PR.

And that was long before the worst of the inflation that defines the current cost of living crisis had hit home.

“Now I’m earning a lot more money than it was in journalism… My family would be really struggling right now if I had stayed in journalism,” he adds.

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“And when you’ve worked for so long to get to that point in an industry to get to do a particular job, it’s sad [to leave it]… but you feel like you can’t afford to stay in that career and have a family.”

Jane* graduated from a journalism masters course in 2020, and after a series of fixed-term graduate internships found her contract coming to an end and took a journalism-adjacent role at a charity. When she started to apply for journalism roles after a few months however, she started to notice the wages were far below her current salary.

“I was offered a number of roles in different newsrooms, but none of them matched the salary that I was on,” she explains. “I decided I would rather not take those roles, I would rather develop interesting and different skills here that I hope may allow me to go back into a newsroom more specialised at a later time [on a higher wage].”

She adds: “I definitely wouldn’t take a pay cut now [in the cost of living crisis]. I think maybe midway last year I may have been willing to take a £5,000 annual pay cut to be in a newsroom.

“But now with the cost of living crisis and seeing that some newsrooms can pay more, why should I settle for massive pay cuts and put myself through anxiety and stress over money when these places clearly have money.”

The duo are just two of a growing cohort of journalists who are leaving the industry each year in search of better pay and conditions, an exodus some Press Gazette spoke to warned was set to accelerate as the cost of living crisis strikes leaving many titles losing experienced staff.

How big is the current exodus of journalists?

As the cost of living crisis is ongoing, it’s hard to ascertain exact figures on the number of new graduates avoiding the industry or current journalists being forced to leave in search of higher wages and more stability.

While looking into the issue Press Gazette examined the most recent data on the employment outcomes of NCTJ graduates, the biggest journalism qualification in the country. The report – covering the outcomes of alumni of 2019 and the preceding three years – claims 76% of those in work are in “journalism-related” jobs within six months, with that figure dropping to 66% within three years.

However, once you account for those taking on roles in PR and comms which the report classified as “journalism-related”, the figures shift to 61% and 48% respectively.

The report also found that the average wage for newly qualified NCTJ graduates in any job (so including the large numbers working outside journalism) was £22,500 after six months, rising to £27,500 after three years. While those were higher than the figures recorded in 2015 they remained lower than the median (typical) UK salary, which is around £32,000 a year according to the ONS.

There are some indications of the impact this is already having on the ground. John* claims that of the local newsroom he once worked in, as of now, half of the newsroom’s younger intake have left the industry, largely to take up roles in PR and comms.

Terry Kirby, a senior lecturer in journalism at Goldsmiths University, says the number of graduates on the Journalism MA he co-convenes who went straight into PR and comms roles after graduating tripled this summer.

“I would say that definitely I’ve noticed over the past year that students are looking for more secure and reliable jobs than you might find in entry-level journalism jobs,” Kirby says. “They’re slightly more secure jobs, and the wages are better than the minimum offered for doing a few shifts on a newspaper.”

Why are rising numbers of journalists leaving the industry?

The key issue many of those Press Gazette spoke to for this piece was low pay. At national and regional publisher Reach, a dispute over low pay (where until recently reporters were paid between £21,000 and £30,000) led to industrial action from hundreds of journalists – the largest strike to hit the UK newspaper industry in decades.

Press Gazette reported that junior Reach staffers were rationing hot water, taking up second jobs and were unable to afford to get married due to low wages. Many of those Press Gazette spoke to at the time said they were considering jobs outside of the industry as a result.

The dispute at Reach ended in late September after NUJ members agreed to a deal that will see wages rise for certain journalists ranging from 14% to 44%.

“Journalism is a public good, yet amid record-high inflation and a cost of living crisis, employers risk an exodus of staff if they fail to offer decent pay packages that alleviate the financial pressures many journalists face,” NUJ assistant general secretary Séamus Dooley tells Press Gazette.

“For too long, stagnant pay has blighted the industry, and the current crisis has shone a welcome light on the realities.”

But others highlighted many other structural issues beyond just pay. Kirby says, in particular, the downfall of local newspapers (there has been a net loss of at least 271 local titles since 2005) has meant there are fewer stable, well-paid ways to actually enter the journalism industry than in the past.

“I think the field for opportunity is narrower, the jobs are more fragmented and of a lower status, and people don’t naturally see those pathways for progression like they used to,” Goldsmiths’ Kirby explains. “Which is why after three years of writing clickbait or something, they think: ‘I’m going to get a job as the PR for my local council’.” 

Cathy Duncan, a journalism lecturer in Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Culture, says: “In previous generations, you would start off, you could do a post-A-level diploma year, much cheaper than any university year now, and you would be ready to work or go into an official traineeship… But those days are long gone. She adds that falling advertising revenues in the industry had the added effect of cutting funding for many in-house training schemes that may have made the pool of potential entrants for journalism roles bigger.

Could low wages and cost of living crisis reduce the number of working-class journalists?

The exact future impact of all this is harder to ascertain, though those Press Gazette spoke to warned of the industry struggling with the uncertainty of high churn rates for staff and being able to continually attract talent if things do not change.

“We need greater investment in journalism with quality training to ensure the industry remains competitive and attracts the best people from across society,” the NUJ’s Dooley says.

“The reality is that journalism is in danger of becoming an unaffordable profession. We cannot have a diverse media, a challenging media or an effective media if it ceases to be an attractive career option.”

While there isn’t a shortage in the numbers of people entering training courses or available to fill positions on newspapers just yet, several of those Press Gazette spoke to warned that having journalists leave at such a high rate can leave newsrooms in a frequent state of flux and struggling to retain the most talented reporters. As John* explained it, the local newspaper he once worked on was “hollowed out” as only newly trained journalists and those who had been there for decades decided to stay – meaning many of those that knew their patch best were regularly leaving.

One concern raised by almost all of those Press Gazette spoke to is that the cost of living crisis could make the industry even more unaffordable to join for journalists from a working-class background.

Journalism already has a growing problem with the representation of working-class journalists, with the most recent NCTJ Diversity in Journalism report finding some 80% of journalists come from professional and upper-class backgrounds, almost twice the average for the overall workforce.

The figure was a record high for the industry, with the report finding that social class was the only factor surveyed where the UK news industry is getting increasingly unequal over time.

“The industry is just not set up to recruit different types of people and fundamentally, no matter what initiatives, mentorships or whatever people are doing, it really boils down to finances and pay. If you’re not going to pay people a fair wage, you’re not going to attract people,” adds Jane*. “It really makes me wonder what the state of the industry will be in the years to come.”

* names have been changed at the request of those interviewed

Picture: Alexander Khitrov/Shutterstock

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