Why a would-be journalist should follow her dream

Why on Earth would anyone want to become a journalist? The gauge on the government’s careers website rates the chances of landing a job in journalism as ‘poor’.

After all, census data tells us the number of journalists in New Zealand fell by 52 per cent between 2000 and 2018. There are now, I would estimate, only about 1600 of them employed in mainstream media. And the starting wage of $42,000 a year is not exactly enticing.

I began to consider the issue of careers in the profession after I opened my email one morning last week to find what was described as “a fan letter”.

It was written by a recent graduate who, browsing the university library several months ago, had chanced upon a small book I wrote in 2016 titled Complacent Nation. It was a welcome early-morning  cheer up to learn that she was “beyond grateful that you wrote it”.

She now has a BA in politics & international relations and philosophy. She is working in the media but not as a journalist. Clearly, she has set her sights on a career in journalism but, justifiably, she is confronted by uncertainty.

Her email was courteous to a fault but beneath its carefully chosen words was a challenge: Give me a good reason to pursue a dream. The challenge was in the form of five thoughtful questions, which I shall now attempt to answer. I want to convince her (and others) that journalism is worth fighting for, and that a career in the profession is immensely rewarding if you are prepared to throw yourself into the battle for a hard-fought place on the first rung of the ladder.

“I love traditional media and want to preserve its honour but is this a waste of time?”

Traditional media are not simply newspapers or magazines or radio or television. To me, the phrase represents an approach to journalism, built on what could be described as traditional values. Such values (which I take the word ‘honour’ to mean) are not old-fashioned. They are based on principles that are intrinsic elements of a just and fair society. By following these values – or codes – journalists approach the gathering, assembly, analysis, and dissemination of information in ways that contribute to the public’s ability to place trust in what they are seeing or hearing.

The supply of such information has long been a prerequisite for meaningful debate. However, the world in 2022 is polluted with misinformation spread by the untrained or ill-informed and disinformation concocted by malcontents or bad actors. Access to reliable, verified information is now even more important as a counter to both alternative realities and malevolent deception.

We should not allow the question of the survival of traditional journalism to become bogged down in dire predictions of the death of the newspaper, radio or television. They are simply forms of dissemination, all of which are transient. New ways of spreading information have been emerging ever since the ancient Greeks began writing on the wax version of the iPad. Ways of spreading traditional journalism can always be found.

So long as society places value on journalism – and the future of that lies in the hands of journalists and their employers – it will endure. The need for its continued existence is, to my mind, beyond doubt. So, in answer to the first question: No, it is not a waste of time. Indeed, it is a long way from that.

Should I focus on a blog instead, and build a writing portfolio independent from any institution?”

I call The Knightly Views a website but other refer to it as blog. It is, as I say in my description of the site, a place in which my views on news media past, present, and future are brought together. The Tuesday Commentary has the benefit of having the practised eye of my wife (former New Zealand Woman’s Weekly editor Jenny Lynch) passed over it, but most of the content has not gone through the multi-level scrutiny that journalists’ work routinely receives in a newsroom.

Having your work subjected to the checks and balances applied by your newsroom peers is a vital part of the never-ending process of learning to be a journalist. A blog does not have that seal of approval.

I began my career close to six decades ago, before tertiary institutions introduced journalism training courses. What I know about reporting techniques was learned from the men and women I observed on assignment. What I learned about writing news stories was imparted by sometimes grumpy (but always well-intended) sub-editors and a bullying chief reporter. Later, I found that those who came into the newsroom with newly minted university degrees started with a practical knowledge deficit. Such gaps sometimes resulted from studies that were heavy on theory and light on practice. At other times there were technical skills to learn or the idiosyncrasies of a particular newsroom to absorb.

Newsrooms possess a unique dynamic, most evident in the interactions of a physical workspace but also present in today’s Covid-imposed (but possibly enduring) remote working practices that many have instituted.

The insularity of blog creation limits or denies the learning of professional skills and the socialising of journalism. A far better route into the profession is freelancing: Pitching ideas to editors, accepting reporting assignments, and having your work scrutinised by people with far greater experience is all part of learning to be a journalist. And, when the time comes, you have a portfolio of work that a prospective employer will consider.

“Should I play some sort of career game and aim to be promoted over time?”

Journalism is a career game: It is all about being promoted over time and moving from one role to another. No-one, unless her or his parents own the business, walks into a senior position on day one. If you are in an organisation where that has just happened, look for another job because things could rapidly take a turn for the worse.

Ambition is a positive attribute in a newsroom, so long as it is accompanied by talent and a desire to learn the skills that are required in any new position. During my early years in journalism, pay rises were governed by a grading system that including automatic annual steps. It was a perfect system for time servers, and I was annoyed by the higher grades of people who did less work than I did and who (to my eyes) were very average reporters. I know of no time servers who were stand-out journalists and I know a few whose ambition was misplaced. However, ambition plus talent is a winning combination.

What will not happen – or is highly unlikely – is to be promoted from another part of the business into the newsroom. Editorial departments are walled cities and necessarily so. The separation of journalistic functions from commercial and other operations may not be as strong as it once was but it is still a necessary element in establishing and maintaining public trust.

There is no established path from another area of the business into journalism. There are many examples of journalists moving into other areas, including senior management, but few examples of the reverse. When computers robbed typesetters and compositors of their jobs, a handful moved into editorial roles but it is now rare. Recruitment into journalistic roles is either from within editorial departments or external. That said, there is nothing to prevent an applicant – with appropriate qualifications – from seeking a role as a journalist when they work in another part of the business. Non-journalistic skills can be an asset, but the career path is within a profession, rather than an organisation, and there would need to be a clean cut with the past.

“What should I read, watch, and think about?”

The short answer: Widely.

Journalists need to read, hear and see the work of other journalists. Thanks to the Internet, they are able to do so on a global scale.

Each day I delve into New Zealand, Australian, American and British newspapers. In addition to local radio, I listen to podcasts from the BBC and NPR, as well as the New York Times and Washington Post. In addition to local television news bulletins, I watch Sky News, CNN, BBC and Al Jazeera and can probably be forgiven for not watching Fox News. I read the online offerings of traditional media, along with the digital start-ups like Newsroom, The Spinoff and BusinessDesk. I engage in social media and occasionally disappear down the rabbit hole to look at sites I know to be sources of disinformation.

It is a long-standing habit, being a news junkie. For a journalist it is an essential vice. Like everyone else, journalists read, listen and watch in order to be informed. Unlike the general public, however, they do so to observe the work of other journalists and to learn from their skills and judgements.

That is one side of the answer. The other is to read books that will provide insights into the profession. A degree with passes in papers embracing politics, international relations, and philosophy provides a reading list that is a valuable beginning.

Without a political studies degree, I had to learn my political theory in the Press Gallery to which I was posted shortly after completing my cadetship. Without doubt, I would have been a better reporter had I done that groundwork ahead of time. My reading of philosophy came even later. I think I had to mature first.

If I were now to create a short reading list for myself on those subjects, I would address the philosophical underpinnings of politics: Bertrand Russell, Michel Foucault and Steven Lukes on power; Roger Scruton and John Rawls on political thought: and Jurgen Habermas , C. Edwin Baker, and Cass Sunstein on the public sphere. I would also read three seminal essays: John Milton’s Areopagitica, John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, and Stanley Fish’s There’s No Such Thing as Free Speech, And It’s A Good Thing, Too.

There are enough books written on journalism to fill a large library but several on the principles and practices of the craft have been mainstays for me. First and foremost is The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel because it not only explains what is important but why it must be practised. Second is Spiral of Cynicism by Joseph Cappella and Kathleen Hall Jamieson, which brings home the effects of how the media report. Third would be Harold Evans’ Essential English for Journalists (and his autobiographies Good Times, Bad Times and Paper Chase). Finally (but far from exhaustively) I would list a book that takes a close to home view on ethics – Journalism Ethics for the Digital Age is written by New Zealand-born Australian journalist-turned-academic Denis Muller.

There are three books that I have found invaluable in finding my way through the minefield of free speech. One is The Harm in Hate Speech by ex-pat New Zealander Jeremy Waldron, that gives a yardstick by which to judge where to draw the line. The other books have provided me with a clearer understanding of a subject that is less clear-cut than we might think – truth. The first is a collection of extracts from the works of George Orwell. Orwell on Truth is about its manipulation. The other is Julian Baggini’s A Short History of Truth, which shows how to distinguish between different forms of truth from the spiritual to the scientific and truths that have yet to be established.

I confess that my interest in the foundations upon which journalism is built came later than it should. I suppose I was a product of a just-get-on-with-it attitude that pervaded newsrooms when I was young. I regret that because my journalism would have been better informed by the knowledge imparted by the authors cited here.

I knew about truth and power. I knew about the role of the press in speaking truth to power, and holding power to account. Yet, with what I know now, I would have been better equipped to carry out that duty if I had been fortified by a deeper understanding of my responsibilities as a journalist and the nature of the forces I would encounter. Such thoughts would not be at the forefront on an assignment, but I would have been a better journalist if the underpinnings were at the back of my mind.

If I had my heart set on breaking in to journalism, I would be thinking about the ways in which I could sell myself as an asset to a newsroom.

With the benefit of hindsight, what would you avoid, or do differently?

You build up a boxful of regrets by the time you are in your eighth decade. You also learn more than a few lessons.

 For starters, I would never have touched alcohol. I kidded myself that it was the necessary lubricant of the craft I had joined. It wasn’t and it isn’t. I was a much better journalist after I stopped drinking than I had been with a hangover.

As a young journalist, I had few opportunities to inflict my own opinion on an unsuspecting public. Today there are opportunities aplenty for relative novices to do just that. ‘Opinion pieces’ appear almost as regularly as reportage. The seductive pull of ego should be avoided until you have enough experience to actually know what you are talking about. Some will say, with some justification, that that is a privilege granted to only a few.

I spent my fulltime career in print journalism. With hindsight, I would have put far more emphasis on learning craft skills. I would have expanded my skill set to include broadcasting. Today, those skills are a pre-requisite. The multi-media nature of journalism requires competence in written, audio and visual media and the ability to bring it all together in a digital environment. I would not regard learning those skills as a chore. In fact, I would be like a kid a toy store.

Let me end by posing my own question.

Would I do it all again?

Without a doubt.

2 thoughts on “Why a would-be journalist should follow her dream

  1. Morena Gavin; you need to be thanked for such a generous response to your ‘fan’ but also for sharing your immensely valuable experiences with the rest of us.
    In respect of required (or recommended) reading,I would also suggest the 2016 edited collection ‘Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand’ (Freerange Press) and Alain de Botton ‘The News: A User’s Manual’ (Penguin, 2014).

    1. Gavin Ellis – Gavin Ellis is a media consultant, commentator and researcher. He holds a doctorate in political studies. A former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, he is the author of Trust Ownership and the Future of News: Media Moguls and White Knights (London, Palgrave) and Complacent Nation (Wellington, BWB Texts). His consultancy clients include media organisations and government ministries. His Tuesday Commentary on media matters appears weekly on his site www.whiteknightnews.com
      Gavin Ellis says:

      Valuable suggestions Geoff. Thank you.

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