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October 26, 2022updated 17 Nov 2022 2:20pm

Cost of living crisis forcing some to leave journalism for better paid jobs

By Andrew Kersley

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

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.

“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.

“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].”

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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.”

Local reporters at the UK’s largest newspaper publisher, Reach, start on about £21,000 a year for trainees or £25,000 for seniors. Pay minimums for hundreds of Reach journalists are going up under a pay deal struck this month.

The UK average graduate starting salary is £24,000 while the UK median salary is around £32,000 a year.

John* claims that in the local newsroom he once worked in a few years ago, 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.”

According to the NUJ, journalism employers could see an exodus from the industry due to low wages.

“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 said.

“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.

“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.”

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

“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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