In 2018, journalists have profiled opposition leaders in Venezuela, reported on political re-education camps in China, and documented the separation of migrant children from their families in America. But journalists in 2018 also work long hours and struggle to pay rent. According to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, a journalist entering the workforce today has a one in five chance of earning less than £19,200 per year. Compare this to the UK living wage – £17,062.50 per year – and you can see how little our society seems to value the pursuit of facts.
Researching the state of journalism can be a demoralising endeavour. The Press Gazette reports that 198 local newspapers have been lost in the UK since 2005, and the total number of journalists working on local newspapers has at least halved since then. An article in The Guardian explains that, finding themselves low on money, many newspapers are forced to depend on income that comes with strings attached. A blogpost from Huffpost Canada concludes that journalism “is being murdered” by people who perceive it as free.
More optimistic voices claim that there is hope, that in fact journalism can never die due to humanity’s inherent need to be in the know about our politics, our natural disasters, our conflicts, and our victories. Technically, the optimists are right. Though journalism is going through a painful transition from the physical to the digital age, the industry – just like music, television, movies, and even visual art – is not exactly dangling on the edge of irrelevance. Information will always be in high demand.
The problem is, we now want information at the speed of light and free of cost. No longer interested in paying for subscriptions or sitting down with a hard-copy newspaper, we expect our news, our arts commentary, our cultural insights, and our deliciously scathing opinion columns to be available at the click of a button. We Google the news and click the first result. What’s more, we no longer look primarily to the paper to check the weather or buy a used guitar or read a poem, because we have the Weather app and Craigslist and… Tumblr. Consequently fewer people visit news sites at all. Digital ad revenue is not enough to pay very many journalists very much money – and thus, a crisis is born.
Local newspapers are closing their doors. News is stratifying as fewer and fewer large media conglomerates become responsible for greater percentages of the information we consume. The digital age has also disrupted the traditional advertising industry, so large companies such as General Electric are becoming news organisations themselves in a scheme known as “native advertising”. As a result of these changes, journalists are either unemployed or engaged in storytelling with narrower, more corporate aims.
Native advertising might seem like a solution to mass-unemployment of journalism graduates. Perhaps it is. Certainly, native advertising is a more consumer-friendly approach to product promotion, preferable to banner ads and billboards. But corporation-backed content creation will never fill the shoes of unbiased reporting. The media ought to serve as a watchdog, exposing the government and large corporations when they are unjust or incompetent. Fulfillment of that role will become impossible if all journalism is controlled by big companies or the state. No system will be safe to criticise.
On a basic level, fewer journalists also means fewer stories. With each journalist who gets laid off, and with each local paper that dies, countless moments in history are lost. Stories that would only have been sought out by that particular publication, at that particular time, by that particular journalist will never be told.
However, it is fundamental to remember that journalism is not dead. It is hurting and it is changing, but still here you are, reading this article from a small, independent publication. The Student is run entirely by volunteers who work hard not for money but because they want to. Though the future of journalism looks tumultuous, some are still writing, still editing, still seeking out news. Some will be doing so for a long while.
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