If news is to survive, we need to define what a journalist is

Covering the most powerful media companies to the smartest startups, former Independent media editor Ian Burrell examines the fraught problem of how news is funded today. Follow Ian @iburrell.

Year by year, as the internet grows in power and reach, so we have less understanding of who has paid for the news and information we consume.

It’s not just a question of the fake news scare, highlighted this week by Sir Tim Berners-Lee on the 28th anniversary of the worldwide web that he invented. It goes deeper than that.

Because aside from the current furore over bogus news sites and state-sponsored election propaganda, there is a more fundamental question on which the future credibility of news depends, namely: what is a professional journalist in the 21st century and where do they get their money?

Often derided as an elitist club, the news industry has, in fact, never been so permeable. The door to the press box is permanently ajar, and onto its benches have come a diverse crew of public relations officers, academics, bloggers, graduates, under-graduates and other commentators, both paid and unpaid but all seemingly anxious to add the title 'journalist' to their career portfolio.

According to a recent report by the National Council for the Training of Journalists, the number of journalists in the UK has increased by 22% in the past 15 years from 59,000 to 72,000, despite a haemorrhaging of staff by established news outlets in that period. Around 300 local papers have closed in the past decade.

Everyone's a publisher

And yet the impact of the digital revolution is that the demand for producing news and information, in text, photos and video, is at an unprecedented level. Banks, charities, supermarkets and government departments are all publishers now. The explosion in freelance journalism is partly a response to this need for content and partly a consequence of newsroom cuts. Mark Spilsbury, author of the NCTJ report, 'Exploring Freelance Journalism', the number of freelance journalists has grown by 67 per cent in the past 15 years from 15,000 to 25,000.

“If you'd have looked at this issue 20 years ago, two-thirds of journalists would have worked for newspapers; national, regional or local,” says Spilsbury. “Now it’s much less than that. These people are now scattering themselves across the economy and part of this is a flow into self-employment. There is a big change happening and this does beg that big question of exactly what is a journalist these days.”

Equally importantly, which paymasters are picking up their invoices? More than four years after Lord Justice Leveson published his enormous report intended to clean up the press in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal, the practices of vast areas of what is broadly referred to as 'journalism' are more opaque than ever.

Spilsbury notes that people are “still considering themselves journalists even though they work for a supermarket”. At least these “journalists” who work for in-house communications teams to produce content for corporate magazines and websites are relatively transparent.

It is also imperative that as news outlets (from the Guardian to Business Insider) increasingly explore revenue opportunities from sponsored content, they clearly badge that material for what it is.

But as PR companies 'embed' bloggers and freelance writers into their campaign 'newsrooms' and then seed their neatly tailored work into the news media environment, it is becoming harder than ever to determine 'real' stories.

Tim Dawson, the president of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), says that he is aware that organisations, from hospitals to local sports clubs, are choosing to pay journalists to produce the words and pictures that record the sort of good news stories that local papers are still happy to publish, and once would have paid for out of editorial budgets.

“One of the interesting things we have seen is the paying for journalism shifting from news organisations to often the people who are the subjects of the journalism,” says Dawson. “Who is paying to produce the stuff has changed, and there are issues that arise from that.”

Distorting news

This reliance on outside parties to underwrite content production clearly has the potential to distort editorial independence. Not least because not every subject has the PR-mentality or the money to commission coverage of their achievements, even if they are worthy of press coverage.

“The fact that the editorial decisions are moving, to some extent, to where the money is does have an effect on the nature and the quality of the media,” says Dawson. “The material that [news outlets] have is being decided by people who have interests in what appears and they are only punting the stories that they think show them off in a good light.” Does this sort of practice mean that an experienced local freelance reporter or photographer who produces such positive coverage for their clients should recategorise themselves as a PR professional? I can’t imagine that they would.

It is also not wholly a bad thing, says Dawson, who points out that local newspaper groups, which might have to fill a dozen local weekly papers with the output of a similar number of journalists, are not short of material. “They have publishable material spewed at them,” he says. “It’s good that the material is being produced and journalists are earning money producing it but it’s regrettable that the focus of editorial power is shifting.”

None of this is to say that freelance journalists are less competent than their salaried counterparts.

When the NUJ was founded in 1907, it had freelance members “from day one”, Dawson says. Many of the finest and most high-profile journalists in the UK are freelances.

But Spilsbury’s report and other research studies have highlighted the poor pay rates endured by many freelances. A survey by the website Journalism.co.uk found that one third of freelances earned less than £10,000-a-year. Such poor returns put the integrity of the news industry at risk.

The Guardian reported last year how a journalist who claimed to be a contributor to the prestigious Forbes website had responded to a PR pitch by requesting £300 “to fund my time” on the basis that the money paid by the publisher “doesn’t stretch far”.

In a recent Facebook discussion group on the ethics of freelance journalism, one writer opined that “It’s OK to take kickbacks from PRs because we don’t get paid enough.” Another contributor questioned that position, saying: “To be paid by a PR to write about a client when your editor thinks they are paying you for a piece of independently-produced journalism is crossing some really sacred lines.”

The problem is that, in this fast-changing environment, those sacred lines are not so visible, especially to those who have never worked in a professional newsroom.

Many journalists might never do so. As Dawson points out: “There were no journalism undergraduate courses 25 years ago and now there are scores, but the number of people entering the sector with traditional journalistic employers was dramatically higher 25 years ago than it is today.”

Journalism graduates are having to carve out careers however they can, often straying into other sectors. But they still see themselves as journalists. “If you train to be a journalist you really want to be a journalist and it’s not something you will throw away lightly,” he says.

One of the things that “most surprised” him about his research was the significant portion of freelancers (25%) who have not previously worked in a newsroom but have come from non-journalistic jobs or directly from college or university. “That strikes me personally as [a situation of] ’I cant secure a full-time job but I want to be a journalist, therefore I will work self-employed to get some stuff on my CV’,” he says.

He also found that freelance journalists were less likely to have journalism qualifications, although many depend on commissions from established news outlets. “If I was a newspaper and employing a freelance journalist I would want to stick an extra level of checking on top,” Spilsbury says.

What’s the way forward?

Joanne Butcher, chief executive of the NCTJ, recognises that “journalists in 2017 are a far more complex group of people than their predecessors” and that such diversity represents a “huge challenge” to her organisation.

But other work specialisms have learned to live with similar disruption to their employment models. Barristers, generally considered to be well-rewarded and secure, exist in numbers that are far in excess of the amount of work available to them. Many have adapted their qualifications to other jobs. Accountants, Spilsbury notes, were once nearly all employed within accountancy firms until the demand for their numeracy skills brought new opportunities across the field of work. There is a similar hunger now for strong communicators and information providers.

One option, Spilsbury suggests, would be to introduce an “occupational licence to work as a journalist”. This would exclude many currently at the fringes of the sector. “Someone completely new to the industry and working in PR and comms probably wouldn’t qualify for an occupational licence but may self-identify as a journalist,” he says.

Dawson, the NUJ president, rejects the idea of a licence “for all sorts of reasons”, saying that journalism is essentially self-selecting. “The British media has a long tradition of people being journalists who can do journalism. If you can’t do it you won’t get work.”

But in today’s vast content marketplace the old definitions of 'work' no longer apply.

If news is to retain its distinction, the major outlets need to shore up their quality controls. Which is why, four years after Leveson reported, it is more important than ever that they have in place credible systems of regulation which set apart the trustworthy sources from content that might be produced by journalists but is not actually news.

Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, is published on The Drum each Thursday. Follow Ian on Twitter @iburrell

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