While on a media internship in London, a friend invited me over to his house one evening. Over a beer and out of the blue, he asked: “How much do journalists earn?” Before pausing for thought, I took a swig of my drink. “Not millions,” I replied, “but a decent amount.”
My friend has always been one to fret over money, having regularly had sleepless nights thinking about how to make ends meet. I was living at home at the time; the current health of my bank balance didn’t worry me.
Besides, I was too busy getting excited about the future. I had just finished a placement at a national publication, and I was three days away from starting a journalism course in my home town.
I became even more stary eyed once I started journalism school. The course leader in an introductory presentation reeled off a selection of alumni who had broken into regional and national publications. That could be me, I thought. Put in the hard work, get a qualification, and jet off to the big smoke.
Then one evening, to take the edge off studying, I had a couple of drinks. For once, though, a few drops of alcohol sobered my thinking. As a journalist, I’m inevitably going to have to move down to London. That’s a given – and it should be fun.
But is it remotely affordable? From scrolling through online forums, I know my worries are shared by other young reporters. I have lost count of the number of times I have read posts from journalists blogging their worries on Quora or Reddit.
Their questions are usually hit back with a smug comment like: ‘If you’re going into journalism for the money then you’re in the wrong industry, mate.’
But that’s the point, journalists aren’t exactly poverty-stricken. A junior reporter’s pay packet is modest, but senior reporters often match the City’s annual average (although this figure is distorted by a handful of extremely well-paid media moguls).
Added to this, working in journalism is, frankly, more enjoyable than your average vocation. So, when people say there is no money in journalism, they are not entirely correct. The main problem is the majority of jobs are concentrated in the capital, where housing and the cost of living is extortionate. For example, a month’s rent for a one-room apartment is the most expensive in Europe.
Financial risk is also one of the main reasons why journalists hesitate to start their own business, according to the recent survey, ‘British Dreams and Wishes‘.
One senior radio presenter tells me: “The media in this country is very London centric. Some of the producers working with me, they’ve got six of them living in a house share and 60/70% of their income is going on rent. It is difficult for people. If you’re 22 years old and straight out of university, how on earth do you afford to live in London?”
The last point was a genuine question, but it could have been a rhetorical one. Exactly 20% of journalists have a gross salary of £19,200 while over 80% of hacks in their twenties earn below £30,000. When you’re on that kind of income in the City you’re going to need a helping hand. The most likely source will be from the bank of mum and dad.
Many people feel embarrassed to admit they need financial help, but that’s unfair. If someone’s parents are capable and willing to brunt some of the costs, then good on them. But this fact of life skews the level playing field and tilts journalistic opportunities towards the rich.
The evidence is pretty damning. A little under half of newspaper columnists and a third of editors went to private schools. With soaring energy bills, inflation looming, and the unexpected challenge of Covid-19, working-class boys and girls will find it more difficult to compete.
Building representative newsrooms is a difficult task for any government. To begin with, the UK is already one of the most geographically unequal societies in Europe. Job opportunities represent this stark divide pretty evenly, with the top ten most read newspapers and outlets based in London, and the majority of reporter jobs baked into the M25.
One way to address the issue is to keep pushing news and broadcasting centres out of London. A young graduate journalist puts it succinctly, telling me: “There should be more recognition that different people are suited to different places.”
Relocating parts of the BBC to Manchester and Channel 4 to Leeds is a start, but the future lies with savvy media start-ups willing to exploit an untapped goldmine of talent. Take The Manchester Mill, a new online newspaper specialising in investigative custom-made content for the North West.
It’s editor and publisher, Joshi Herrmann, made the leap from London to Manchester to pursue bespoke local news. In an interview, he told me: “The distribution of good journalism jobs is still heavily slanted towards London…If every city or rural county had a publication like The Mill, dozens of very talented journalists would be able to stay in their areas rather than going to London to get good jobs.”
Yet I’m not naïve to think – or even want – the media to entirely flee the capital. For many reporters – political correspondents are a case in point – moving to Westminster is vital for their career. To accommodate for this inevitability, the government needs to fill the M25 with more affordable properties. Costs are pushing good people away from being able to live and work in the capital; without reasonable property prices, why should less well-off wordsmiths leave their friends and family?
Covid-19 has presented the media a glaring opportunity to readjust itself. For 18 months, tireless reporters typed away in their broom cupboards as opposed to swanky Fleet Street offices. But without comprehensive change now, I fear the dormant talent lying within our towns and regions will be lost for a generation.