I got into journalism twice. First, the old way. When I was doing my A-levels, I arranged work experience stints at three local papers – one for each of the market towns in striking distance of my village, the smallest with an editorial staff of about half a dozen and the largest run by a team of maybe twice that. I tagged along to the magistrates court. I went to a planning meeting. I wrote up press releases from agricultural shows as nibs, and had them turned back to me covered in red ink by an irritable subeditor who did not really want to be babysitting. I, a clever girl who was used to impressing my teachers rather than taking correction, read the comments with my face burning and knuckled down to the amends.
Other minders were happier to have me on their heels. There was the young woman reporter who said nice things about my office-inappropriate floaty skirts (look, it was the nineties), and who told me about her dreams of getting onto a London tabloid as she chain-smoked by the car between council meetings. And there was the sardonic middle-aged guy who delighted in my enthusiasm for talking to newly arrived clerics and taking on extra work — yes, of course I would supply that week’s restaurant review which had somehow been overlooked! I realise now, he had perhaps hoped for more from his career than a middling job on the second-biggest paper in England’s smallest county, but he was kind enough to encourage my chirruping about Orwell and Parker rather than crush it out like one of the fags he, too, endlessly smoked (look, it was the nineties).
Local papers were places that could take you places, if you were good, if you were ambitious. I borrowed a book on shorthand from the library and studied it in my free time. I read, and I read, and I read. I wanted this so badly – I wanted the cynicism, the self-deprecation, the hack’s pride in being a hack, underpinned by a fierce private seriousness about what their papers meant to their readers.
We were our readers’ eyes in the courtroom and the town hall, and we celebrated their large sheep and we marked the birth of their babies and the passing of their dead, and we got their names right, because there was a good chance you might meet them in the pub and get an in-person right of reply if you didn’t. I thought I would do my English degree, then a graduate traineeship in London, and maybe one day I’d come home again and work on (I meant run) one of these papers. Even this was gentrified compared to the paths taken by the people I’d shadowed: a degree was not a prerequisite for a job in a newsroom. Look, it was the nineties.
Ten years later, I got into journalism for the second time. I hadn’t done the graduate traineeship – I’d had two babies instead while I was at university, and parked my inky dreams, because how could I be a mum of two and live in London pulling late-nighters? Instead I secured funding for a masters and then a doctorate, thinking that academia might be a more welcoming environment for a woman with family commitments, and you can imagine how that turned out. Lol. I never learned shorthand, but I never stopped reading either and I never stopped being in love with journalism: one of the first pieces I got commissioned was about Michael Frayn’s hack farce Towards the End of the Morning, and whether the newspaper novel would survive in a post-print world.
Because in the decade that had passed, the internet had happened. This had been devastating for the press, and most devastating for the local press, which now exists in only a skeleton version. Between 2005 and 2015, nearly two hundred titles shut down — partly because their circulations fell (a constantly screen-stimulated reader doesn’t need to pick up a paper to fill their time, and it’s notable that one of the few to straggle on is the Evening Standard, which went free-sheet and focused on reaching reception-starved underground commuters), but mostly because the classified market died.
Have an announcement? Put it on Facebook. Flogging a sofa? Gumtree. Looking for a date? OKC. That time I spent on the court benches watching drunks plead guilty to shoplifting was subsidised by the real business of the papers, which consisted of those tiny columns of text between the readers’ letters and the sport: ono, gsoh, dearly missed, wltm, bnib. All on the internet now. If you are up against a judge on a charge, or victim of a crime that is tried in a magistrates’ court, or if a planning decision affects your life, or if local government does anything — by and large, that goes unwitnessed, because these days everyone sells their old crosstrainer on eBay.
This, as much as baroque theories about Cambridge Analytica, is the real threat to democracy constituted by the internet. The decline of local press is also bad for justice, and bad for all sorts of reasons, but most importantly, because I’m hugely solipsistic, it’s bad for journalists.
My second route into journalism began like this: I emailed The Guardian’s Comment is Free desk with a pitch about how angry a political adviser’s anti-abortion comments had made me, and within 24 hours, it had been commissioned and published online. This was thrilling: I wrote for The Guardian now! Eventually, I developed a routine for picking up this kind of work. Every morning started with the Today programme, scanning Twitter, reading the headlines, especially reading the headlines in the Mail, in search of something that I could be mad enough about to write 600-800 hundred fiery words on it.
Being mad was important because the economics of this kind of content required fast output (since timeliness is critical) and high engagement (since this is how editors, and writers, measure success). I write quickly when I’m angry, and anger begets more anger, so people are more likely to share and react. Not everything I wrote when this was my main form of journalism was bad, but only some of it was good, and the worst of it had a dishonesty that made me feel ashamed: I was deliberately riling myself so I could rile other people in turn, and the arguments I offered had a kind of incuriosity, a clamshell quality, where the main thing to recommend them was how impervious I could make them to critique.
That critique came from two places, and neither of them were my editors. There were the comments, which I was encouraged to participate in (this meant extra unpaid hours of being called a dipshit by the odd, self-celebrating clique that every site will attract in the name of building a “community”), and Twitter, which it seemed (still seems) impossible not to be a part of if I wanted to stake a place in public life. And there’s a buzz to it as well. Being in the thick of the fight, delivering put-downs to all-comers, soaking up commiserations and applause from onlookers, feels good. God knows, when the rates are so low, you need some kind of sop to pull you through.
The same forces that squeezed local journalism mostly to death had been at work on the national level. There’s an assumption that if you write for the national press, you must be well-off: journalism is, after all, a profession. But publications with falling print circulations and shrinking ad spend can hardly afford to keep up with inflation. A byline is not going to convince your bank manager to issue a loan.
Even so, the perception that journalists are beacons of middle-class privilege persists. People have always thought badly of hacks (I remember a secondary teacher who, when I told her I wanted to be a journalist, looked appalled and said: “But you’ll have to do some awful things”), but today journalism occupies a strange niche of being low reward and low prestige, yet still high resentment. There’s an assumption that writers have reserves of wealth and power which means the public is entitled to a piece of them.
There’s a tiny element of merit to this, which is that as opportunities to get into journalism have declined, it’s become more dominated by those with personal resources (aka well-off parents). Journalists, it should be said, hardly discourage the assumption that we are important and secure – because most of us would like it to be true. We went to university for this, we work long hours, we believe in the Insight team or David Carr or Joan Didion or whatever.
“Being a journalist” has a kind of legacy value, even though being a journalist is not in most cases what it once was: I sometimes teach creative writing students, and it’s astonishing how many young people will tell you that they’d like to be a journalist while not being able to name a single journalist that they themselves admire or publication they read regularly.
Compare the girl of 1998, and the young woman of 2008. The girl works in a newsroom. She learns her trade, going place to place, talking to people, figuring out what’s a story and what isn’t, with feedback from editors. If she annoys someone, they might write a letter or phone the desk (or even, if they have the clout, threaten to pull their advertising) but that’s about as bad as it gets. The young woman of 2008 is on her own. She stays in one spot with her laptop.
She’s more qualified, but she’s also more narrowly skilled. And she’s vulnerable. Her editors could stop taking her pitches at any moment if they don’t get enough reaction, or (worse) if they get too much reaction of the wrong sort, which won’t arrive as a scattering of green-ink letters, but in the form of hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of tweets attacking her, and attacking the people who employ her. It’s easier to let her go and hire someone less contentious to file that copy than it is to defend her — although they’re unlikely to need to cut her, because she’s already been socialised via internet into pursuing the fragile approval bestowed by loosely-bonded online groups.
I was very lucky to be the girl before I was that young woman. The majority of people who now enter journalism will only have the latter experience, and even if they wind up on staff, this will be what forms them. They are weak actors reliant on weak institutions. This weakness is what you have understand before you can make sense of the strange cowardice that afflicts the media.
It is, on the face of it, baffling that certain positions which are niche in the public at large can attain the status of unassailable truth within the media. Most people, by and large, don’t adhere to privilege theory, for example. Which isn’t to say privilege theory shouldn’t feature in any journalism — but nor should it be the only framework through which rights are discussed, and nor should any dissension from privilege theory be treated as prima facie evidence of bigotry.
Such ideas take hold because they work as markers of belonging: your commitment to them shows your commitment to the institution. And they are enforced for two reasons: because to let them slide would be to make yourself vulnerable to the same attacks, and because excluding other people from the field increases your access to the shrinking resources available.
In other words, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that journalism as a profession has grown less catholic (small C) as it’s become more besieged; nor that the more elite it has become due to entry routes like the local press shutting down, the more obsessed its practitioners as a whole have grown with signalling their lack of elitism to each other (in ironically jargon-y language). The market cost of ignoring opinions the public would gladly pay to read does not outweigh the personal cost of disaligning from the in-group values.
The only profession that I think is probably worse for this is the one I almost went into instead: academia has even lousier pay and even lousier security for work that is supposedly valuable, and even less tolerance of what I suppose I’m going to have to call intellectual diversity, despite that being one of the ugliest phrases in existence. It matters, deeply, that the organisations to which we entrust the discovery and dissemination of information and ideas have grown hostile to free speech and free thought. It matters that they have grown closer to being intellectual monocultures: if the national press was populated by more people who’d had their career grounding doing vox pops in the regions, I wonder whether the 2016 referendum result would have felt like quite such an ambush.
But telling journalism to be better — acts like signing the open letter recently published in Harper’s Magazine, or complaining about unpaid internships — is not going to make a lick of difference when the institutions themselves have been gutted. (Depressingly, many critics of “woke culture” on the Right would happily destroy, not reinforce, the institutions they have some justice in critiquing. If you think the BBC is too reflexively liberal, that’s an argument for making it securely independent, not for starving it of funds — unless of course you’ve always wanted to starve it of funds.) You cannot change a culture unless you change the incentives that act on it. And I don’t have a plan for doing that.
I could hector you to buy a paper, but you won’t. I could command you to give up Gumtree, but why should you? It’s just better than local paper classifieds. Democracy was a free rider on a slightly inconvenient way of life, and it’s much harder to give up convenience than it is democracy. I think paywalls help, and private funding models are an option, but neither is endlessly scalable (for example, paywalls haven’t worked for tabloids), and neither is going to fill the gap left by the local press.
This isn’t just a hole in our media: it’s a hole in our polity. The form of public accountability we’ve settled on is one that relies on a robust, independent-minded, largely private-sector media to do the job of scrutiny. It hasn’t always done this job well, but no other body is equipped to do it. Now it’s falling away, and as we’ve already seen at the local level, this is not a vacuum that there is any rush to fill.
A schoolfriend of mine actually saw through my original plan: the degree, the training, the homecoming to the editor’s chair. She very sensibly went into PR. One of the papers I did my work experience on has now been absorbed by its larger rival, and the editorial staff on the two remaining wouldn’t fill the office of one of them from the time I was there. We have to get used to the idea that the press as currently structured can no longer do all the work we’ve loaded onto it, and we have to think about where — if anywhere — that work might happen instead.
Journalism still matters — however few people buy a paper, the front pages continue to strike righteous terror into politicians. I still love my work. But if I had the choice to make a third time, I don’t know if I would, or even could, go into journalism again.
This article first appeared on 27 August, 2020