Journalism is becoming a profession for
only the rich – so why won’t anyone talk about it?
Expensive degrees and unpaid internships have priced out all but the most wealthy young people from becoming reporters, broadcasters or writers in Australia – but many are keeping quiet. In this long-form investigation, Mumbrella’s Adam Thorn speaks to struggling wannabe journalists, industry legends as well as the biggest players worldwide fighting to ensure the fourth estate reflects the public it serves.
On the surface, Young Australian Writers is an invite-only Facebook group set up as a forum for aspiring authors under 40. In reality, it operates more as a kind of support group for its 3,500 frustrated members, many of whom are trying to get their first job in journalism.
So you’ll see posts on the kind of topics you’d expect – articles on new indie mags, adverts for new courses, tips on how to structure features – but also the type you maybe wouldn’t: there’s an anonymous database revealing 250 journalists’ salaries, advice on how to copyright work against theft and even a page that reviews internships.
It’s also why I’m now sat in a hot chocolate cafe in the suburbs of Sydney with Isla Williams, one of the members who answered my post asking for interviews for this feature. I must have spoken to dozens of young people with similar tales of toil for little results, but her situation seemed particularly typical of Australia: a talented young writer from a country town who’s put in thousands of hours of work and study, but without a full-time journalism role to show for it.
“I’ve wanted to be a journalist since I was eight years old,” she tells me. “It always baffled me that people had confusing ideas about what they wanted to do with their lives because it was just so obvious to me.”
It started, she explains, with a reading obsession as a kid. She’d take her book with her everywhere, getting into trouble for carrying it to the dinner table or staying up late to read. If she had to take a day off sick from school, she’d spend the day writing short stories for her mum. Today, she cites her journalism heroes as ABC’s Leigh Sales – “obviously” – and Richard Fidler. “He’s a major journo crush,” she says. “He’s the best interviewer in the country.”
Her problems began because, today, what scant entry-level jobs exist require you to both have a degree and the experience of having completed years of unpaid internships. Williams, though, was brought up in a town 100km from Sydney. Her closest university was an hour and a half’s drive away from her family home, but even then it only ran very limited courses. So she figured she would have to move to the big city and study journalism to have any chance.
In Australia, there’s little help from the government to make that happen. The student loan system, Hecs, differs from that in, say, the UK because it only covers tuition fees and not living expenses or textbook costs. The extra help available, meanwhile, seems generous on the surface but is mired in complexities that make it hard for many to claim. For instance, the main secondary grant, known as the Youth Allowance, hands students a maximum payment of $223 a week – but that reduces when you start earning more than $219 a week, at a rate of 50 cents per dollar. Furthermore, if you’re 21 or younger, that sum will reduce by 20c for every dollar your parents earn over $52,706. Isla’s total benefits were just $60 per week.
But she continued nonetheless, juggling her course with working as a waitress and then a tutor, but it wasn’t enough. So she started making the three hour trip back home on weekends, working on shop floors during the day and a pizza restaurant in the evenings. At one point she was working three jobs while studying. It was exhausting, she says, because her course would sometimes place her on unpaid internships during term-time, too.
And the more time she spent working, the less time she had to gain the now necessary work experience. Every stint outside of her course had to be balanced with the financial hit she’d take. Still, she wrote for student websites and uni newspapers and managed to get the odd article published in big national publications. “I’ve heard the internship success story where it got them a job, but they were able to commit to staying late or working five days a week,” she says. “People who leave at 5pm may not be doing so because they don’t care, but because they’re running late to their next job that starts at six. Those that benefit are the people who can afford it.”
What she won’t tell you though, is how good she is. I asked her to send me her portfolio before we met and her writing is everything you’d want a young journalist’s to be: her copy is witty, well structured and packed full of detail. She’s light-years ahead of anyone I knew at her age when I started.
It upset me because there doesn’t seem to be much sympathy out there for her. What she’s going through chimes with a hunch I’ve had for a long time: there’s an attitude in the industry, from those who are established, that because they had to struggle to get going, the next generation must fight, too. The best, they preach, will make their own luck. But times have changed. What luck are you meant to make if you have absolutely no way to afford to become a journalist?
But there is one thing I have to admit. While every detail I explained above is true, Isla Williams isn’t her real name. In fact, she, along with many others, asked me to keep things anonymous and to omit details of exactly where she’s interned, the university she studied at, the course she took and even the name of her hometown. And I completely support her decision – it’s foolish, in hindsight, for a young recruit to criticise the industry, however right she may be.
It’s coming to something though, I think, when an industry obsessed with exposing secrets has trained its next generation to keep quiet about its own uncomfortable truths.
“The kind of person who has hopes and dreams and wants to fulfil their potential won’t come forward,” explains Dimity Mannering from Interns Australia, a campaign group that aims to raise awareness of industries that demand new entrants spend months working for free. The whole point of struggling through, she adds, is to get a job at the end of it, so it makes little sense for anyone to complain publicly about the situation. “Now employers demand you arrive job-ready,” she says. “Well, it never used to be that way. Before, you could start as the mail boy of The Daily Telegraph and end up being editor-in-chief.”
And that’s just scratching the surface of the causes behind young journalists’ struggles. In truth, the reasons behind all this are a messy, tangled web of factors, which are hard to explain and even harder to prove. In summary, though, I think it’s this:
The slow death of many traditional publishers and broadcasters means there aren’t enough entry-level jobs in the industry to meet the enormous interest from young people. This swing in the balance of power between supply and demand has meant media owners now choose not to train recruits, and instead expect them to arrive with a journalism degree and also the practical experience of having completed months – or, more often, years – of unpaid internships. Both of these things are, of course, very expensive to undertake, while the latter is usually acquired through family connections.
So let’s start with supply and demand. There is no definite, reported number of the amount of redundancies, say, that have occurred in the industry over the last 10 years, but the website New Beats aims to track all the major announcements. In the previous 18-months alone, the Sydney Morning Herald has fired a quarter of its newsroom, Fairfax closed six local mastheads, News made 100 people redundant, Seven ousted 150 people from its Melbourne Broadcast Centre and Pacific dispensed with most of its sub-editors, to name a few cases. This has led to many major graduate schemes being canned or greatly reduced. It’s a confusing situation, not least because News, Pacific, Bauer, Seven and Ten all failed to reply to my questions on what their situation currently is. As far as I’m aware, however, no major publisher or broadcaster regularly hires from high school or without a degree or major qualification, and most require previous experience.
Supply though, is as plentiful as ever. The Department for Education told me 4,800 new students enrolled in a university journalism course during the latest academic year that figures are available for – an increase from 4692 in 2010. How many of them become journalists? Again, there are no definitive figures, but a 2017 government survey of 512 journalism graduates showed only a quarter (26%) landed a job in the industry. It’s a galling return considering a typical journalism course costs young Australians more than $19k.
Yet having a degree is just the start of the process. “Companies that post junior roles want two to three years of experience,” explains Rachel Smith, the founder of media jobs site Rachel’s List. That rules out most graduates, she says, and leads to young people interning for free to plug the skills gap. Today, most publishers also require juniors to have mastered a breathless list of skills including SEO, video editing, design, subbing and photography. “It’s common to see three jobs squeezed into one,” she continues. “The days of being just a great writer and landing a job based on your clippings are over.”
Exactly how many young people are forced into working for free? We don’t know for sure. A 2013 report commissioned by Australia’s Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) attempted to unearth some hard facts with little luck. “It is difficult to accurately quantify the number of workers undertaking unpaid work experience,” it admitted. “But such arrangements are a growing feature of the Australian labour market.” And so, three years later, the Department of Employment commissioned a separate investigation. It went one further though, claiming unpaid internships were a “majority practice” among students, and recognised the huge costs for those undertaking them. Those from “economically disadvantaged” backgrounds, it stated, don’t have the same opportunities as wealthier students due to juggling work to cover living expenses. It aligns with research from Interns Australia that suggests the average student loses $6,000 in lost wages while undertaking work experience.
Yet what these studies were able to do is move the debate onto a whole new, shady area: that many – and maybe even most – unpaid internships were, in fact, illegal. In layman’s terms, in 2018 “internship” was often a snazzier name for what we used to call slave labour, with students often performing tasks that were generating the company money. That first 2013 report didn’t hold back in its criticism. “There is reason to suspect that a growing number of businesses are choosing to engage unpaid interns to perform work that might otherwise be done by paid employees,” it stated, before suggesting that legal action was needed.
How big is the scale of this in Australia? Well, enormous. Interns Australia estimate 60% of placements are illegal. It’s led to a Twitter feed set up to name and shame them, @dodgyinternship, which both posts and messages the companies to hold them to account. In particular, Pedestrian, the youth website, is often criticised for the number of jobs on its board that seem to cross the line of legality. It’s not unusual to find schemes that demand recruits work for months for free writing content, and often requiring a list of previous experience. So, yes, work experience is required for work experience. (Pedestrian, in response, told Mumbrella advertisers now have to agree to T&Cs that remind them of the law before being allowed to post, and that these are then manually reviewed.)
Except, much of these problems occur because the law on what constitutes slave labour vs an internship is a minefield of grey areas. The current legislation, the Fair Work Act and Fair Work Regulations Act, defines an illegal placement as one outside of a course where the business benefits more than the student or one where the young person is doing work that could be carried out by a paid worker. Something subjective enough to be argued either way. And, as we’ve seen before, students won’t stand as witnesses because they need to get the reference that will enable them to get a job.
“Fear is a key issue as to why illegal work experience stints have become such a widespread issue,” the anonymous author of @dodgyinternship tells me via email. “The current system relies on mistreated workers to report their negative experiences, rather than the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) looking at job websites and investigating, which is obviously flawed.” In fact, a Freedom of Information Act request I made revealed not a single journalism intern dared lodge a complaint with the FWO in the last 12 months – meaning the Australian government failed to reprimand any broadcasters or publishers.
“A lot of publishers hiring interns say that at the end of six months, working three days a week, there might be a job for you,” explains Catherine Bouris, the founder of Young Australian Writers. “So they dangle that carrot to give you hope. Yet the truth is they can only hire one person, but heaps of interns, so nine times out of 10 it comes to nothing. The younger, more inexperienced entry-level people get screwed first.”
It brings to mind one passage in Ross Perlin’s excellent 2011 book, Intern Nation. “Internships are a world of spin,” he writes. “And the reason you can spin them – whether you’re an intern or an employer – is that no one knows what they mean. They remain such a recent, chaotic phenomenon that there are seldom any rules of the road, any standards or codes of conduct that are honoured – only the vague expectations, for which no one is held accountable. Even the word intern is a kind of smokescreen, more brand than job description, lumping together an explosion of intermittent and precarious roles we might otherwise call volunteer, temp, summer job and so on.
“Until a few decades ago, the word referred almost exclusively to a particular period of hands-on apprenticeship in the medical profession.”
For many years, the British politician Alan Milburn was best known for serving as health secretary in Tony Blair’s government. But really, his true calling came years later after he resigned from front-line politics. In 2009, the then-prime minister, Gordon Brown, asked Milburn to chair an independent cross-party panel examining social mobility called ‘Fair Access to the Professions’. Essentially, his task was to investigate how hard it was for those from ordinary backgrounds to get top jobs across a variety of roles. The report his team produced was so stark that two future governments asked him to continue investigating in a variety of similar positions. Crucially, these reports were cited by the Australian FWO’s own investigations and appear very much to be one of their inspirations – not surprising given the enormous parallels between the two countries’ professional industries. At very least, Milburn’s work remains arguably the biggest and most authoritative of its type conducted worldwide because of the sheer scale of the research.
How so? Well, that initial 2009 report considered 13,000 pages of evidence compiled from 140 submissions from employees, trade unions, MPs and professional bodies. There was also a survey of thousands of young people, sessions with think tanks across the political spectrum, meetings with ministers from every government department, a debate in the House of Commons, and talks with British embassies around the globe. And perhaps most importantly, the panel took evidence from 70 young people, who presented first-hand the tales of toil that mirrored those I saw myself in Australia.
Yet the results across this and future reports by Milburn singled out one profession for its harshest criticism. “Journalism,” read one passage in 2012, “has shifted to a greater degree of social exclusivity than any other profession.” Another added, “Journalism, with some honourable exceptions, does not seem to take the issue of fair access seriously.” One particular paragraph that I read, though, slams in your head like a doorstop. “A generation ago, it was perfectly possible for a senior national journalist to have worked their way up from a local paper and to have entered the profession without a university degree. Today, there are fewer such people. Journalism has become almost entirely a degree-only profession. And securing an internship has become a hurdle that has to be cleared for most who aspire to a career in the media industry. These changes have contributed to making journalism one of the most socially exclusive of professions.”
The conclusions were backed up with the kind of data that doesn’t really exist in Australia. Only 3% of journalists had parents working the lowest “unskilled” occupations, compared to 17% of the public as a whole. Some 83% of journalists did an internship, of which 92% were unpaid, with an average duration each of seven weeks. A quarter, incredibly, lasted more than 13. Of the country’s top journos, more than half were privately educated, compared to just 7% of all pupils. Journalism was one of the professions they concluded had become “a cosy club” with “very little monitoring to speak of”.
Yet these investigations have ground to a halt. Why? Because late last year Milburn and his entire team – compromising members from all political parties including, crucially, the ruling Conservatives – quit because they felt their warnings and evidence were being ignored. I made numerous attempts to get in touch with Milburn for weeks through as many channels as I could find, but with no reply. In fact, he hadn’t appeared to have made a public statement since.
“We need to take these reports seriously,” adds Interns Australia co-founder Tilly South, who discovered Milburn’s investigations while researching her PhD, “because it’s clear we’re heading down the same track. We’re seeing our futures in the US and UK economies.”
But is Australia really heading down that same track? To find out, I wondered if I could conduct my own research. LinkedIn, I wagered, could be used to give us a clue as to the backgrounds of the nation’s most senior journalists. How many of our major newspaper editors, I wondered, were privately educated?
And of course, we would have to treat this with caution: attending an expensive school doesn’t necessarily mean someone is extremely wealthy, while there is also the danger that those who have supposedly better educations would be more prone to posting it on social media. Still, it would at least give us an intriguing peek into the state of the industry.
The results were astonishing. In Australia in 2018, just 15% of students attended private schools, and another 20% attending Catholic (which tend to charge fees, but smaller ones than traditional private). Of the editors of Australia’s 12 biggest newspapers, seven revealed their background. And every single one of them attended a fee-paying school. Just think about that for a moment: as far as we’re aware, 100% of our most senior newspaper journalists came from a background we could describe as being in the wealthy minority. And of course, the bulk of these schools are in richer, metropolitan cities, rather than across Australia’s many rural towns, introducing the skew we first talked about.
All of which leads to yet another worrying thought. Maybe it’s not the case that just the poor are being locked out – perhaps it’s the vast majority?
Garry Linnell, the former editor of The Daily Telegraph, isn’t one to keep quiet when I ask him what it’s like for aspiring young journos interning at Australia’s many up-and-coming publishers. “In reality,” he says, “they’re sitting down in a galley holding onto the oars and rowing as furiously as they can.” Back when he started at The Age, he adds, he was lucky if one in ten of his stories made the paper. Today, interns or cadets are shovelling coal into The Titanic’s furnace so quickly they don’t have time to build contacts or improve their skills. “How do you get the best stories when you’ve got an inexperienced, immature staff and most of the old ones are eying up the next round of redundancies while trying to figure out if the payout will let them settle up the mortgage?”
His opinion is intriguing to me because, more than anyone I’ve met in the Aussie industry, his career reads like a biopic charting the rise and fall of journalism in this country. A postman’s son from Geelong, Victoria, he started at The Age as a cadet in the ’80s but was one of three that year hired straight from high school – a position he snagged after spending years writing football match reports for his local paper as a teenager. “I’d ride my bike into their office and hand them my copy before a grizzled old sub would completely rewrite it and turn it into English,” he jokes. “But that meant by the time I was 17, I could apply to every masthead in the country with some clippings.”
The Age’s cadet scheme, meanwhile, was typical of how rigorous the application process was for jobs at the best state papers. “You had a thousand kids sitting in a big hall doing an initial exam. And then they’d cull that list back to a hundred, and you’d go in for a series of interviews. So by the time you got down to the final 25, you were facing the senior editorial team who’d pepper you with questions. And that’s pretty confronting at 17.”
But the rewards of being hired meant the paper not only gave him a job where he could learn from the best but that they also paid for him to get journalism qualifications studying one day a week. It served as a launching pad for an extraordinary career that included stints editing legendary news mag The Bulletin; heading up news and current affairs at Channel Nine; serving as editor of The Daily Telegraph for three years; before becoming editorial director of Fairfax’s Metro division.
And it was in that last role where Linnell found himself spat out of the other end, making the impossible decisions as to which staff got the chop as the business struggled to survive the ongoing death of its revenue model. From 2011 until 2014, he thinks, he let 150 full-time jobs go, with plenty more following them out of the door since. It’s a situation repeated among traditional publishers worldwide, with the knock-on effect making it harder to hire young people, pay them, train them properly and give them the breathing space to learn.
But what he really wants me to know is the further problems of not hiring working-class kids; of shifting the emphasis from learning skills such as shorthand towards academic journalism degrees and months of pricey free labour. Going straight into the real world from school, he argues, sometimes arms young people with an initiative they can’t get in the classroom – street smarts and the ability to read people. “I don’t think it matters if you come out of university or not as long as you’re keen enough and curious enough. The key thing is to be curious.”
Meanwhile journalism schools, he thinks, are patchy in their quality and require too many years of studying. “In the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s some of the best Aussie journalists came in from the bush where they’d worked in one-paper towns or covering the courts. That background enables you to be a bit more sceptical about how the world runs. Not because of any working-class ideology, but because you’re just used to knowing you’ve got to work a little bit harder sometimes to get ahead.”
It’s a view shared by Harold Evans, arguably one of the most acclaimed journalists to ever live. Now 90, his career CV includes 14 years editing the UK’s Sunday Times and its sister paper The Times; overseeing monster book publisher Random House in the States; and also senior positions at Reuters, the New York Daily News and The Atlantic.
But, like Linnell, he came from a distinctly working-class background, too. Growing up, his dad cleaned steam trains and his mum worked in a cotton mill. His grandfather couldn’t read. Nonetheless his first job in journalism, at small-town paper The Ashton-under-Lyne Weekly Reporter, gave him a three-month trial and paid him. It’s a start he got despite no previous experience – with the news editor seemingly impressed that he’d speculatively sent his CV and covering letter to every newspaper in the area.
“The digital disruption has given opportunities, of course, of blogging and stuff like that,” says Evans, talking to me on the phone from his home in Long Island, New York. “But, it doesn’t compare with the training I got, for instance, on my local newspaper. The very fundamental rock of reporting. There, I learnt everything from photography to how to deal with someone who just lost their son in the war. Today, working-class boys or girls don’t have the rigorous training. And, by that, I mean fact-finding, fact-checking, investigations or knowing where to find sources.”
But he’s also keen to point out to me that journalism has, in a sense, always been a profession dominated by those from wealthy backgrounds. He explained in his autobiography, My Paper Chase, that listening to the plummy, posh accents of BBC presenters of the day made him feel like being a journalist was unrealistic and unattainable. “Nobody in my universe spoke like that,” he wrote. “Turning on the radio made me feel ashamed.” He, too, owes much of his success to his parents, who saved up to send him on a shorthand course and backed him on his dream to be a reporter long after.
The difference, though, was that there was still at least a ladder for ambitious poor kids to climb; a chance for those determined enough. Evans had his university fees and living expenses paid for by the government, and at no point did he have to intern for free. “I suspect it’s harder now for a working class person who hasn’t, by the time he’s job-seeking, accumulated some special quality. Maybe it’s a language or an understanding of digital technology or a propensity to investigate.” It goes back to the view of Rachel Smith from Rachel’s List – today, being a good reporter or writer is just not enough.
His points also tally with conversations I’ve had with young people who do manage to get their first job. Many end up churning out multiple stories a day and are often paid sums of money that make it very difficult to survive without savings or financial help from their parents. Whether it’s news reporting or featuring writing, good journalism takes time and, without that, it becomes tough for them to fulfill their potential. It’s why so many leave the industry in their early thirties – unable to earn the kind of money needed to bring up a family or put down a deposit for a mortgage.
“Thirty years ago you were a saleable commodity when you had ten years experience under your belt,” adds Linnell. “If you were good, people would try and hire you, and so your salary would keep going up, but that’s been whittled away. Today, major mastheads have a small, top tier of highly-paid A-grade staff, and then the rest just run around furiously. The attitude is, ‘If they don’t like the pace, well, they can go and do something else’ because there’s always another bucket load of young, wide-eyed kids ready to come in and take their place.”
After weeks of trying, I finally managed to get hold of Alan Milburn through his old university, Lancaster, where he now holds the ceremonial position of Chancellor. He called me at 7:30am, UK time, as he was darting towards a meeting. It felt like the final piece of the puzzle in this story because it’s his research that created a debate that didn’t exist beforehand. It also occurred to me that there’s a delicious irony in it being a politician, of all people, taking a stand to expose a scandal in journalism that the industry itself seems too scared to acknowledge. And it’s even more amusing, I think, that he’s done it through the kind of dogged reporting more associated the profession he’s holding to account. “It’s not viable for journalism to rightly shine a spotlight on others yet not be prepared to have the spotlight shone on itself,” he says.
But I wanted to know more about why journalism, precisely, is so dominated by the wealthy compared to other professions? “It’s who you know, not what you know,” he explains. Essentially, jobs in the media are usually acquired by what he terms the “informal labour market” – or, in layman’s terms, it’s jobs for the boys. “If you’re on the inside track, you’re in a great position. But what you can’t say is that it’s either fair or leads to a profession that represents the public it serves.”
“Internships are a massive change in my lifetime, too. They’re now the first step on the career ladder, but they’re also unaffordable for those not from a better off background. There’s an assumption that to get a paid job somebody must serve their time. Where it becomes exploitative is where it’s essentially a permanent job but without the rights or protections that go with it. Work experience should be for a short period so that young people can learn the ropes; it shouldn’t turn into months by the photocopier making the coffee.”
And while Milburn may never have been a reporter, he knows a lot about dragging himself up the class ladder – his rise up the political ranks came despite being brought up by a single mum on a tough council estate in the northern mining village of Tow Law. His luck only changed when, aged 16, his mum remarried and moved her son to the more affluent area of North Yorkshire where he attended a higher-achieving school. Whereas before his career advisors suggested a lifetime as a social security administrator, at Stokesley Comprehensive they made him believe he could get to university. “I got lucky in my life from where I came from and where I ended up. I often ask myself, ‘Is it possible for a kid in future growing up on a council estate in the UK to end up in the Cabinet?’ And the answer is probably not. And that can’t be right. Opportunities need to be widely available among young people.”
But back to journalism, I wonder what the secret is to making the profession more diverse? Among all those I spoke to, nobody seemed to have much of an idea of what the solutions are. But Milburn does.
“Data, such as survey and polling, is the most powerful tool in this argument because it shows the extent of the problem,” he argues. “People are shocked when inequality is revealed, and that’s the spur to action. We all have an opinion, but data can tell a compelling story that’s undeniable. Anonymous stories, too, are part of the picture; a jigsaw piece assembled that paints a picture of what’s happening on the ground.
“There is an appetite for change in a way there wasn’t for decades. And by shining a spotlight on this issue, there is at least the prospect of progress.”
“Informally we’re hearing more and more stories from young people about the struggles they face while interning, but there needs to be more formal research,” adds Interns Australia’s South. “The few existing reports are a great start, but it’s not been enough to change the culture in industry or motivate our government to legislate.”
Isla Williams has applied for a few jobs in journalism recently but narrowly missed out. She soon starts a content marketing role. It sounds like a decent job with good prospects, but, I wonder, whether she’d trade it for a position in journalism?
“Without hesitation. Interning is not an option, but the plan is to keep freelancing on the side, keep pitching and keep faith in myself.”