TV and radio presenter, John Humphrys said recently he was deeply pessimistic about the future of journalism and wouldn’t recommend his children or grandchildren to go anywhere near it. Instead, they should ‘train for a profession where they’re more likely to get a decent job with some hope of security’.
A couple of millionaire journalists, Piers Morgan and Ian Hislop, disagreed with Humphrys and testified what wonderful fun they are having thanks to the old racket.
Bully for them. For the ordinary hack, the future looks more darkly Humphrysian. Redundancies and brutal commercial reality mean those with jobs are asked to take on more work across more channels, with less support – and certainly no more money.
For freelancers it’s even tougher. I recently met a friend who used to be a well-paid feature writer on a popular Sunday newspaper. He left to write (very well-received) books on popular history, supplementing the royalties with commissions from his old newspaper. Only now these earn him precisely half what he received 10 years ago.
He’s far from unique. Freelance rates have not risen for a decade: in fact, they’ve declined. Add inflation. Do the maths. However, my friend is also an example of how journalists can reinvent themselves and get back among the good bucks.
He is brilliant at unearthing unusual chunks of history and telling the story concisely and vividly with huge dollops of human interest. It so happens I have a client who needs a historian. My chum will write for the magazine we produce for said client. But he’ll also do blogs and be on tap for events, talks, training – a whole suite of things where his skills are, what I once saw described as, ‘market-relevant’.
Granted, not every brand needs an on-tap historian. But ignore the specialism; look at the skills. My friend has contacts. He knows where to go to for information. He reads fast, writes fast and delivers fast (compare that with a social media agency recently taking 35 days to produce a tweet about cheese). Best of all, he can spot a story; and tell it.
I’m forever saying to my journo chums: ‘You don’t know what you’ve got’. These skills you take for granted are hugely in demand, as companies seek fresh ways of connecting with their customers. There is a new and hungry generation of media owners: you just may be more familiar with them as brands that run supermarkets, make cars or fly airplanes.
I am not talking about the controversial area that’s become known as ‘native advertising’; I mean doing mags, blogs, vlogs, tweets, posts and videos of real quality for real people.
My company currently commissions more stuff from journalists than ever before. We have more jobs of all kinds for journos and designers than at any time in the 15-odd years I’ve been here. For our bigger clients, the demand for ‘always-on’ content means we’re operating things that look very much like newsrooms.
John Humphrys may not have been thinking about ‘branded content’ but rather the business of ‘serious print journalism’ (though he has worked for us himself, as does his esteemed old mate, John Simpson). Will Self recently ran a panel on the Future of London for one of our clients – for which he was paid, not pilloried.
So here’s a message for good journos worried about bad times. You may need to reinvent yourself. You’ll certainly have to rethink what publishing means in 2014. You might even have to rename the thing you do. But whatever you call journalism these days – it’s entering a golden era. Seriously.
Mark Jones is an editorial consultant for Cedar and AITO Travel Writer of the Year 2013.