Good journalism takes time, stupid – yet today’s young hacks are feeding off scraps

In the wake of a report about Australia's most prolific byline collectors, Mumbrella's Adam Thorn assesses the current state of the journalism industry. Or should that be 'churnalism'?

Last year, I wrote a story for Mumbrella that was a bit of a passion project of mine, arguing journalism had become a profession for the rich. The gist of it was today more young people are looking for jobs in the industry than there are positions available. This means those entry-level roles that do exist tend to go to those with the most experience, something that almost entirely happens through expensive degrees and unpaid internships.

Yet what I also tried to investigate, too, was the trouble plucky journalists from ordinary backgrounds faced if they beat the odds to land their first job. Smashing through the glass ceiling, I discovered, was just the start of their problems.

To do this, I interviewed Garry Linnell, the former Daily Telegraph editor. A postman’s son from Geelong, Victoria, he began his career as a cadet for The Age and rose up to run Fairfax’s metro newspapers. A poisoned chalice position which saw him make the impossible decisions as to who got fired as the publisher’s revenue model was left decapitated by the internet. From 2011 until 2014, he let 150 full-time jobs go.

Garry Linnell, the former Daily Telegraph editor

“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?” he explained. Young people, he added, are now “sitting down in a galley holding onto the oars and rowing as furiously as they can.”

It’s a point proved by a terrific investigation by Streem, and reported this week by Mumbrella. The media monitoring company examined a year’s worth of data to try and deduce the most commonly occurring bylines on metro or national newspapers. Unsurprisingly, the top five spots were taken by journalists from Daily Mail Australia. But when you delve deeper, the results are frightening. The most ‘prolific’ journalist produced an eye-popping 1,083 stories a year, which worked out, it estimated, at 4.51 stories a day. Which sounds, well, exhausting.

The point, as correctly identified by Streem’s Conal Hanna, is great journalism takes time. Lots and lots of time. Why? Well, not necessarily because the writer needs time to think – though it helps – but because this is the non-fiction business. The more research and reporting and interviewing you do, the better the piece will be because the more raw materials you have to work with. Obviously.

Streem’s Conal Hanna

And that’s why, back in the day, journalism outlets employed more reporters than they necessarily needed because the focus was on creating good stuff, which would keep readers or viewers hooked. And it was the good stuff that kept the circulation up, and ultimately, generated more money. But then, as the industry’s revenue model collapsed, journos got fired because they were seen as a cost, rather than a revenue driver. Why spend money on five staff, the bean counters argued, when one can produce the same amount of words?

In 2019, not only are there far fewer jobs available, but most of those roles now don’t give young people the opportunity to produce anything of substance. Green hacks work crazy hours on awful money and emerge with a mediocre portfolio, scarcely worth the effort and in no way reflective of their potential. How many trainees, I wonder, have done no real journalism at all? No wonder most quit for a comms job as they enter their early thirties, exasperated and bitter.

So when we talk about the reduction in entry-level jobs available, we should also realise that perhaps the vast majority of those remaining are pretty rubbish anyway. In fact, the number of jobs allowing journalists to do some actual proper journalism is tiny, in my experience. How many outlets in Australia run long-form features, say, 5000 words plus? How many publish investigations, which take months to undertake? And how many run a profile on a celebrity where the writer is granted a good few days’ access to their subject, and given a few weeks to write it up? The answer is not many, and in those publications that do, only an elite few journalists are handed those golden opportunities.

When I was in my in my late twenties, I bagged a job working for one of the UK’s most esteemed magazines; one of the precious few which ran smart, long-form features. I started as a deputy chief sub-editor – a position I did enjoy and was passionate about, mind – but my plan was unashamedly to get myself some bylines. Yet after a while, I noticed something maddeningly frustrating. The subs, designers and fashion assistants (those who call in the clothes) tended to be young people from a variety of backgrounds. Nearly all of whom got the jobs because they were good and keen and sort of forced their way in through one way or another.

Yet the writers, photographers and stylists – the more glamorous roles, if we’re honest – were a different story entirely. Not only did they all happen to be solely from the same uber upper-class backgrounds – an argument for another day – but they had all been in those positions from the past 15-20 years. Virtually nobody new had emerged in a generation. Sometimes, the top people might swap roles around similar titles, but generally, nothing ever changed. And no matter how many stories I pitched, or how many 50-hour weeks I put in, I wasn’t given a sniff of the action. And nor were any of my peers.

So one day I decided, all kamikaze-like, to have it out with the editor. And I did, recounting almost everything I said above. The response was predictable: you have to earn your stripes, he barked back. The people above me, he explained, were better than the young people vying for their positions.

And on reflection, he was right – they probably were. But what he didn’t appreciate was his generation were given the opportunities to learn and improve and hone their craft the next just weren’t. His trusted lieutenants were afforded chances that don’t exist at all in a world where a journalist smashes out 1,000 stories a year.

Essentially, those lucky souls who landed the coveted positions – both on staff and freelance – tended not ever to vacate. They remained stubbornly squatted in place, blocking the path for the next generation, like a heavyweight champion whose agent ensures he doesn’t take a risky bout. They only time they relinquished their titles was when they received their redundancy pay check, as Linnell rightly pointed out years later. My experience might have been something of an exaggeration, but I firmly believe that’s the situation across much of the industry right now around the world.

The old codgers shown the door might be bitter at how they were treated, but try being the next lot who never got to see the glory days in the first place.

In truth, I got lucky in my career, having far more good times than the generation emerging now, who face an impossible task.

Where then, does this all end? Well, I think ultimately, the industry will right itself, and it probably has Netflix to thank. The streaming service has turned the tide against videos of skateboarding cats and the like, and made the world appreciate quality programmes made by professionals, to the extent punters are now paying good money. I predict the same sentiment to transfer to reporting and writing, and it’s probably happening now. As revenues eventually rise, more will be hired and young people will be handed their chance, once again.

But it will leave behind a forgotten generation, caught in the middle – and that’s just a tragedy, frankly.


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.