When I sit down to write a blog post, I try to make it informative. Sometimes, it’s just an update on the book, but I always try to give something back.
I’m afraid this is not one of those posts. It’s 1.33am and I am stressed out.
I spent most of the holidays filling out funding applications and preparing a crowdfunding campaign. I also started writing a brief for an illustrator friend who is doing the artwork for my book. Next up, I have to file my tax return and sort out my budget/costs for the year: £500 for that flight to meet Source X, £X to live and eat, etc.
When I started in journalism, I had no idea I’d end up like this: self-employed and hustling for the funds to do each story. My plan was for a life of stability: graduate from university, get a newsroom job, mortgage and live happily ever after.
That’s not how it turned out. 25% of my time each week is spent filling applications for funding and toying with crazy ideas. Sometimes, it’s fun. Coming up with crazy ideas always is.
Other times, however, it’s really hard. In fact, most of the time, it’s hard. It’s not what I imagined it would be. In some ways, it’s better; in others, worse. Such is life.
I tweeted recently that I wished my younger self had known that the future of journalism was self-employment. If she had, maybe she’d have spent more time preparing, learning the skills one needs to run a small business. I turn 24 in two months and I’m still making it up as I go along. As well as worrying about how I’m going to crack a story, I have to worry about how I’m going to pay for the expenses incurred by digging it up. It’s double the pressure. Sometimes, it feels like I’m pushing a large boulder up a hill with no chance of reaching the top.
Lack of entrepreneurship in journalism schools
This is what frustrates me about journalism schools. Most are preparing their students for a life of 9-5 employment (journalism isn’t a 9-5 job but you get my drift) when they’re going to end up as 5-9ers. 5-9ers (a term I’ve stolen from NI entrepreneur David Turner) are people who do a 9-5 job to pay the bills whilst doing what they really love from 5-9 (or whatever ungodly hour they prefer working to). The 9-5 allows them to pay their bills whilst they figure out how to make a living from the 5-9.
I’m incredibly lucky. I have a part-time job in journalism (editing Mediagazer.com). It allows me to watch industry trends and see where the next wave is coming from. Yet of the local journalism courses I know, only 2-3 grads per class are gaining employment in the industry. There are a growing number of disillusioned rookie reporters who can’t find a foothold in the jobs market.
The new generation of journalists must be entrepeneurial
Let’s be honest here: the “good times” aren’t coming back. A journalism grad lamented the “passing of the roar of the presses” on Roy Greenslade’s blog this week. I can understand that. Mainstream newsrooms are not a nice place to work at the moment. Journalists are under huge pressure. They have to meet the demands of the real-time world – Twitter, Facebook, the web – whilst dealing with shrinking resources. Indeed, i-teams are unheard of in most regional newspapers.
Yet there is a solution: train rookie reporters to be 5-9ers, not 9-5ers.
With employment in traditional news outlets shrinking, the only alternative is to create your own living. Technology has allowed this to happen, enabling reporters to publish and distribute their work, not just via blogs but as online magazines and books. There are a growing number of “lone wolves”, independent journalists like Marcy Wheeler and Alexa O’Brien, who are making their living and/or sustaining their work via donations from readers. With platforms like Kickstarter and PayPal, it has become easy to bypass newspapers and engage with readers directly.
Yet those signing up for journalism courses often have a blind expectation of employment. That’s how the employment market worked in the pre-Internet world: you earned qualifications and that opened the door to a job. It doesn’t work like that anymore, certainly not in the journalism industry. If you’re determined to become a journalist, you are automatically opting for a life of self-employment and entrepreneurial spirit – and the instability that comes with that.
Too many j-schools aren’t communicating this message to their students. Why would they? The foremost goal of every university is to make money. If they were to tell prospective students that being a journalist just became 10 times harder, they’d drive them away.
But it’s easier to learn something at the start, when your mind is a blank slate, than be forced to adapt to it later. Entrepreneurial and business modules should be mandatory learning on every journalism course. Being a journalist right now is like being a passenger on the Titanic except you have to build your own lifeboat.