The career of the future? Number of self-employed journalists rise
By Alex Ward
The media industry has changed considerably over the last decade with staff cutbacks decimating newsrooms and the dawning of the ‘citizen journalist’ – every man and his dog on the street with an iPhone able to report the news. The evolution of the media industry has also seen journalists wearing an increasing number of editorial hats including the obligatory ‘online presence’ on social platforms, writing a blog, editing video footage and taking photographs.
With it, a rise in the number journalists turning to self-employment is setting a new trend. Some have blamed the economic downturn, others argue it is employers looking to pay less and provide less benefits like sick and holiday pay to employees doing essentially the same work. Maybe it’s the appeal of flexible hours and being your own boss. Whatever the cause, the surge of self-employment is not isolated to just the media industry. It has been felt across the entire British workforce in recent years.
Self-employed workers rose 367,000 from 3.83 million between 2008 (the start of the economic downturn) to 4.2 million last year, according to the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics. Sixty per cent of this rise was seen from 2011 onwards, so what changed?
It’s a trend that seems to be reflected in what and where journalists are working today. The National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) found that 28 per cent of journalists in the UK are now self-employed. That’s way above the average 14 per cent of self-employed across all sectors. In the media industry, the use of freelancers has become just about universally accepted. Writers and reporters are also the most likely of media staff to be self-employed, NCTJ research found.
‘The dispersion of journalists away from the “traditional” mainstream media to other sectors and self-employment is a notable change,’ says Joanne Butcher, the chief executive of NCTJ, in the February 2013 report Journalists at Work. ‘Those who are self-employed will be practising their journalism in a different environment to those working for a newspaper or magazine with the support of an employing organisation.’
Andrew Knight, a senior journalism lecturer at the London School of Journalism, says it is a path that new graduates should be wary of before jumping straight in. ‘Clearly many are enticed by the prospect of the independence and flexibility offered by freelancing, but freelance rates and opportunities have also been reduced in recent years, and working for yourself does involve a high degree of self-discipline, confidence, the ability to cope with rejection and the prospect of a degree of financial insecurity,’ he says.
‘We are all aware of the staff cutbacks, especially in the established print and broadcast media, so this will have forced many staff journalists to consider freelance career options, as well as those entering the profession who are attracted by the perceived advantages.’
There are about 60,000 journalists in the UK - 16,800 of whom are self-employed - and as the upward trend continues, there is a growing need for a more diverse skill sets to become successfully self-employed as a journalist, Ms Butcher says. ‘The increasing shift to self-employment brings with it the need for a wider range of skills involved in running a business and pressure to keep journalism skills up-to-date,’ she says. ‘We [as educators of journalists] have to consider how to reach “new employers” and the self-employed, and to find ways to engage with the “non-employer”-based workforce to ensure that training (and skill levels) meet the needs of the broader definition of our industry. There is a need to write for a more diverse range of platforms and outlets and to fill the skills gaps in IT and new media.
‘There is a move away from training being related to the current job being paid for by an employer and being undertaken at work, to training being more related to a job that might be wanted in the future, to being paid for by individuals themselves and being undertaken, in essence, privately and on a voluntary basis outside work.
‘It is a concern that these shifts in training practice have been accompanied by a growth in the proportion of journalists saying that the training they have undertaken is not as useful when compared with training in 2002,’ as respondents to the NCTJ survey suggested.
Mr Knight argues that the same skills taught to staff writers are still the pearls of wisdom for aspiring freelance journalists. ‘In terms of journalism training, the same skills that make a good freelancer are relevant to staff writers too - understanding your readers, having a strong commercial awareness and the ability to "set the agenda" through lateral thinking, are skills that need to be taught,’ he argues.
‘Since editors interviewing for staff jobs always expect to see evidence of published work, the skills associated with freelancing are essential for all aspiring journalists. Establishing a portfolio of credible published pieces is an incremental process, but those who succeed always cite persistence, enthusiasm and resilience as being essential qualities in their journey.’
To be successfully self-employed, a journalist must learn to be thick skinned and able to pitch to editors, Mr Knight says. ‘Aspiring freelances have often found it is not their writing skills that prevent them from selling their work, but the ability to come up with great ideas and spot topical angles that make their articles relevant to readers' lives.’
‘The fact that students all over the world do succeed in breaking into our business is perhaps an indication of the importance of good training. But it's also an increasingly tough and competitive environment where low rates of pay have led to disillusionment in some sectors of the industry, as well as putting off many who find the realities of modern journalism pose too many hurdles for them to overcome.’
There is some indication that universities and colleges in Britain are taking notice of the rise in self-employed journalists. At City University in London, journalism students do a course on ‘entrepreneurial journalism’ which teaches them the attributes and techniques to become entrepreneurs through their work to develop their own business as a self-employed media professional.
Self-employment: some figures
• Freelancers tended to work longer hours and be older than employees in 2012.
• Most were male.
• There was a 60 per cent increase in self-employed workers from 2011-2012.
• The highest proportion (81 per cent) of freelancers were based in London, the lowest (11 per cent) were in North-East Britain.
• Of journalists in Britain, 28 per cent are self-employed compared to 14 per cent across all employment.
• Writers and reporters are more likely than other media professions to be self-employed.
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