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The Slow Death of Modern Journalism

Across the media industry, the drive for profit amid falling revenue is building vast churnalism mills where journalists serve advertisers more than the public. The only solution is for media workers to get organised.

A national reporter was having a late Christmas with family when he stepped outside to make a call.

He had not long come off the train from London, having worked over Christmas and Boxing Day, when he noticed that the rota for January was not in his inbox. This was odd. Reporters were usually told what shifts they’d be working halfway through the month before; perhaps it had slipped someone’s mind in the Christmas rush. 

Fresh out of university, the young journalist was doing freelance shift work at a liberal-leaning title — meaning he was essentially a staff reporter, but on a zero hours contract offering poor pay and worse security. 

He badly needed five shifts a week if he was going to keep up with rent and bills, so he contacted the guy who usually sent out the rota. An email came back telling him to call the news editor.

“The editor told me they would like me to come in on the 2nd and 3rd of January but after that I wouldn’t be getting any more shifts as he felt my work wasn’t up to scratch,” the reporter said. “I was given no warning that they would be cutting me, despite the editor obviously knowing he was considering letting me go. 

“I was now jobless and wondering how I was going to put money together to pay any of my bills in the New Year.”

Why was his work not “up to scratch” exactly? The reporter said there had been just one day in his short time at the newspaper when he’d come close to doing anything that could be called original reporting.

The Rise of the Dogsbody

This may sound like a failure on his part to anyone unfamiliar with the state of the news industry today, but rehashing stories from other outlets was exactly what he had been asked to do as one of the many “dogsbody writers” manning national news websites.

“Every story I wrote came from me being asked to essentially plagiarise other news stories for clicks,” he said. “The editors would see that a particular story was doing well on social media and would ask people to rip them.

“I can remember with one story I was called over to a news editor who had a go at me for the story I’d filed being too similar to the original they’d asked me to rip, and was essentially told to copy it, but try not to make it obvious.”

This was the state of journalism before the coronavirus upended our lives, and it is still the state of the journalist in a time of global crisis. A handful of reporters, probably those you follow on social media, have the time and luxury to produce work in the public interest while many of us, not for want of ambition or ideas, spend our time pumping out rubbish in the knowledge that we can be spiked at a moment’s notice.

In his 2008 book Flat Earth News, the investigative journalist Nick Davies called this practice “churnalism,” an apt label for the quantity and quality of work reporters are expected to produce.

One graduate reporter at an unnamed regional daily newspaper agreed to write Davies a diary of their working week. Over the course of five days, they wrote 48 stories of varying length (a little more than nine a day), spoke with just 26 people (or two per article) and spent three hours out of the office.

A proper story came through the door one day, when a young woman came to the office claiming that her children had been taken into care because she had learning disabilities. The graduate reporter recorded that the news desk wasn’t interested, so they wrote an article about a man running a marathon three weeks earlier instead.

I was stunned when I read Flat Earth News as a student. The graduate’s account of work as a reporter was alien to everything my lecturers had told me about the industry, and nothing like the Hollywood image of real life reporters exposing politicians, churches and corporations. Surely journalists were all still expected to rake muck, speak to people and inform their readers? They can’t have been writing stories at factory speeds with little time to check anything.

Reading the book again, two years into the trade, I almost envied the graduate reporter from the noughties. At least they got to leave their desk.

Churnalism Mills

My normal working day looks something like this: I get into work at 7 a.m. and check the Slack channel — a messaging programme where editors assign stories. Ten minutes later, my bosses have given me two stories. These “stories” are almost always total shit and usually consist of ripping exclusives from elsewhere or reporting that something inane is trending on social media. 

I need to have them both online by 10 a.m. This means I have an hour to check each story out, put in calls, send emails, and write at least 400 words before I upload them to the system, find relevant videos and pictures, caption them, write two different headlines for each article as well as standfirsts, tag the stories with keywords and finally submit them.

An editor will assign me a third story once those are done, or while I’m still working on them. On the odd occasion they’ve not tagged me in anything, I can choose the third story I write before lunch — which is almost always taken at my desk.

I tend to pitch an original story in the afternoon, or remind my editors of pitches they accepted earlier in the week, hoping that I have a few hours to dig. They sound enthusiastic and give me the go ahead.

But then the fourth story, and sometimes a fifth, are dropped on my desk. This last habit has become more common in recent weeks, and has the perverse effect of giving our newsroom less time to check stories thoroughly when it could not be more essential.

By the time I clock off, I’ve worked an hour of unpaid overtime and know I will likely be taking calls and emails well into the evening to get original stories finished. 

The reality is that many of my peers have dealt with worse. A few friends from university who worked night shifts at a national tabloid wrote roughly an article per hour as freelance workers, meaning their shifts could be docked in an instant if they were unable to hit targets, or inevitable mistakes slipped into their copy. Others found themselves writing clickbait articles (“Who is X and what is their net worth?”) as their phones gathered dust and they lost all enthusiasm for the trade. 

Some had the task of working under those conditions while editors berated them, not for making mistakes, but for doing their jobs properly, or trying to break away from the cycle of plagiarism. 

The media was not always this way. Recounting life as a reporter in the late nineties and early noughties, one local journalist with decades of experience said: “On a day-to-day basis, every reporter would spend time out of the office. Everyone. 

“Every reporter had contacts across the patch. I know that the web is a great resource, but it was just instilled that you had to know people, not just know how to find out who to get in touch with.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity, they added that pup reporters were given hours to go out and speak to people in town about the issues of the day — a far cry from the churnalism mills of the modern media.

While the job could still be stressful and difficult, there was a greater sense of pride in the work being done, and journalists actually used the skills they picked up in training. Papers were also better staffed, meaning there was less pressure on reporters to bash out reams of rubbish to fill space. 

Most importantly, staff were treated well and given a bit of respite after the rush of deadline day.

“The day after deadline was ace – for the most part you’d spend the morning doing a page or two of the leisure section, go to lunch for a couple of hours, and if you were feeling extravagant you’d go out and do a feature,” the veteran local reporter said.

“There would be a staff Christmas party with an awards ceremony, and we thought that we were hard done by because it would be held in January.” 

Media Austerity

So, how have working conditions in the media fallen to such lows, and why do so many reporters no longer do journalism? Because executives have slapped our work online for free and chosen to make us pay for it.

The cabal of chancers at the top of the media industry made this fatal mistake at the start of the digital era, when millions were still going out and paying for magazines and newspapers instead of getting their news online.

When habits began to change, their strategy stood still. And those executives continued to stand still as it became clearer and clearer, year after year, that money from digital advertising would never replace cover prices or subscriptions.

Did media bosses change their strategy when its failure was stamped in size 48 font? No. Instead they did what all good capitalists do: they fired workers to save dividends and told survivors to work harder and longer to cover the losses. 

As those losses continued to make headlines and newspapers were sent to the shredders, what followed was not a rollback of cuts, the return of public interest reporting or power being moved away from executives into the hands of journalists. The cuts only became deeper, this time to levels most thought impossible.

The veteran local reporter said that a title he started on 10 years ago operated in the way you would expect a newspaper to be run, having a dedicated editor as well as reporters and sales staff.

“A year or two later that title no longer had its own editor – he was given a neighbouring title to run as well – and as that was the more commercially important product, that was the one which took up most of his time,” the regional reporter said. 

“Fast forward another seven years and that newspaper shared an editor with another 10 papers. The reporters who worked on that paper also worked on five other titles. 

“The paper now has no dedicated staff, with various reporters based all over the country, and just being emailed press releases from a central generic inbox. Although the company has half a dozen titles in the same county, there isn’t a single office – and it’s at least 45-50 minutes to drive to the patch from any of the few offices that do exist.” 

Meanwhile, national news outlets laid off staff and either left their positions vacant or filled them with a precariat class of freelance contractors who had little say over what they wrote and fewer rights.

As the journalist Rossalyn Warren told the Future of Journalism inquiry in March, the media “rely on freelancers way more than they’d like to admit” while paying them poorly and rarely on time.

“The rise in freelancing has in part stemmed from the job insecurity in the industry, and it’s the job insecurity that didn’t really exist ten years ago,” she added.

This insecurity — the fear that a complaint about pay, conditions or strategy could lead to arrears, or being cut out of the trade altogether — censors dissent from below. 

Organising for Better

The coronavirus pandemic has made this situation worse, and will carry on doing so in the long-term. We have already seen publishers slash staff salaries amid a plunge in ad spending and poor newsstand sales. And there is every chance that these coronavirus pay cuts will not end with the virus, but only been joined by further job cuts and harsher workloads.

Some publishers who have used the current crisis to chop their staff wage bills have not made promises to return pay to its normal rate in a few months’ time. Instead, they have simply called pay cuts “temporary” and left it at that, failing to consult staff or give them any idea of when they might get their lost wages back.

Freelance contributors are also facing further uncertainty amid the pandemic, with the National Union of Journalists warning that writers and photographers have seen their diaries cleared out as shutdowns continue across the country.

Under such conditions the thought of getting involved with a union to organise can seem like a suicide mission. And it doesn’t come without risks; I write this article anonymously because my employers would sack me in an instant if they knew I was trying to unionise my workplace.

But it is precisely in times like these that reporters must tell our editors that there will be nothing for them to print in the morning if we do not see pay, conditions and strategy improve today.

We saw what failure to form a union looked like when BuzzFeed News staff opposed the chance to organise in 2018 — only for roughly half of newsroom jobs to be cut less than a year later.

More recently, we saw what the threat of strike action could achieve when journalists from the same outlet won union recognition in the U.S. and Canada after staging walkouts in several cities. In the U.K. journalists at Newsquest’s Scotland titles recorded a small victory when they forced the publisher to drop the threat of compulsory redundancies by voting in favour of a strike.

VICE UK staff also achieved recognition last summer after four months of negotiations, and three years after management rejected an earlier attempt amid accusations of union-busting.

We all want the wins to be bigger. Our profession and our lives have been torn up by cuts, bad strategy and the pursuit of advertising revenue. We all know that more newspapers and livelihoods will soon be gone if the media’s course does not change.

Our bosses will not bring about the change we need. It is our duty to fight for better pay, fairer conditions and a return of proper reporting. If we shirk that responsibility, we will leave an even worse industry to those who follow tomorrow. It is for them, not just ourselves, that we must unionise today.