When journalism cuts deep

Mark Cunningham

What budget cuts and a changing mediascape means for the sector 

For those interested in journalism and news reporting, it seems a spectacularly unfair contradiction that despite the sheer abundance of news and political coverage experienced in this day and age, jobs in journalism are constantly being cut. The decreased shelf-life of recent political events meant that keeping up with Brexit alone was an overwhelming and often impossible task, even though our ability to access and consume news is easier and cheaper than ever. It’s no secret that journalism in the 21st century is in some ways a dying profession that faces the commercial challenges of a competitive media based on free and accessible digital news consumption, as well as the influence of governmental and private corporate interests that have attempted to tighten their grip on media outlets since the rise of neoliberalism in the early eighties. With that in mind, we are also witnessing the rise of the civilian journalist and a diversifying of the blogosphere and news arena, with more outlets and channels than ever to get news from.

The BBC recently announced plans to axe over 250 employees, with internal figures saying this could reach up to 450 by 2022 in order to save £80 million. After nearly 100 years of broadcasting, the BBC are evidently struggling to keep up with the transforming digital space in which, not only are people increasingly reading news on portable digital devices, but are seeking alternative media platforms and outlets, marking a move away from the dominant traditional newspaper outlets and giving way to a more competitive digital market. This changing media landscape comes with both ups and downs for journalists. On one hand, there may be more media outlets to work for, with more diverse, nuanced content and niche audiences to go around than before. It may even make it so that anyone with an internet connection can become a journalist, not just those who can afford to do a 3-month full time unpaid internship in central London. But the catch is, they will likely want fewer journalists, and won’t be able to pay you nearly as much and will expect more from you for less.

As digital journalism takes over and makes a breakaway from the paper-laden coffee-binging newsrooms of the legacy media past, a new trend in the business flourishes which, for some will mean a sense of corporate-free liberation and autonomy over their working hours, but for others will mean financial uncertainty and irregular working patterns; freelancing. The National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) found that over the period between 2000 to 2015, the percentage of UK-based journalists working as freelancers rose from 25% to 35% with the actual number of freelance journalists rising from 15,000 to 25,000. Working remotely or from home can improve your work-life balance and allows you to gain experience writing for a variety of publications instead of one. Arguably, it gives you more freedom and control over the writing you do.

However, freelancing is plagued with many issues relating to financial uncertainty, such as low pay and late payments. Not knowing where your next gig is coming from can be daunting, and often freelancers rely on additional jobs to supplement their income. A respondent to the NCTJ survey on freelance journalists commented that, “The basic problem with freelance journalism now is that the rates for the job have collapsed as has the amount of commissioned work publications will entertain…So in a nutshell very little work and if there is it’s now at very low rates.”

The financial pressures of the current journalism industry have also altered the way articles have to be marketed online, with the aim being maximum sharing and tagging potential on social media sites. News articles moving to the company’s online website and social media pages allows the space for advertisements, which in turn generates more profit. In order to maximise on these profits, media outlets first have to get scrolling users on to the page. The rise of clickbait headings with snappy or eye-grabbing titles designed to encourage social media users to tag their friends in is surely a turn for the worse for journalists. We’ve all seen important political coverage be reduced to a 7-second long soundbite or packed neatly into a smartphone-consumable montage, that has likely only reached our screens by way of the powerful algorithms. If the future of the profession is reliant on the production of content that is tag-able first and foremost or misleading enough to grab the attention of casual smartphone users, it promises more career-wise for social media managers than it does for writers and reporters.

The future of the BBC is dependent on how well it adapts to the transforming digital media sphere, accusations of political bias, and the public’s increasingly sceptical attitudes towards the mandatory license fee. Various corners of the Conservative government, including the Prime Minister, have recently suggested that the license fee may be scrapped once its current contract ends in 2027. Considering the BBC is Britain’s most popular media outlet (58% of the public cite it as their main source of news), this is – pardon the pun – huge news. The idea that TV owners should pay a one-off yearly payment to a singular media platform when there are plenty others they can use for free or on a subscription basis is one that is failing to resonate with many news readers. For journalists in Britain, this could either be the final nail-in-the-coffin on stable work and decent pay, or it could open up new avenues, further fuelling the move towards a more diversified news media. 


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