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The Big Issue launches Breakthrough program to promote diversity in journalism

The scheme will offer four placements to young journalists looking to enter the industry

The Big Issue has long aimed to provide people with the opportunity to build themselves into an entrepreneur, while also providing support for people who need it and great articles for its readers. Its latest endeavor now aims to do that for disadvantaged young people looking to enter the world of journalism by offering four placements to 16-24-year-olds across the print title and bigissue.com.

The media and marketing worlds have been criticized over the past few years for a lack of access to young talent. It’s particularly difficult for those that cannot afford to enter the industry through one of the traditional channels, which usually require degrees or hard-to-attain work experience.

Working with the Department for Work and Pensions’ Kickstart scheme, the Breakthrough program aims to “create a youth-led unit within the multi-award-winning media arm of the business”, offering training across “all aspects of journalism including digital, social, video, audio, design and writing”.

Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue. He says: “Stakes were high enough pre-pandemic for young people who didn’t have connections or a ready leg-up into this business. It has long been my ambition to do something about that. Now, as opportunities constrict, it’s absolutely the time.

“This is a highly competitive industry. Just because you were born without ladders or open doors doesn’t mean it has to stay that way. There is a mass of talent out there and we want to help them. And this is not about free labor through non-paying internships. The young people coming through this program will be working and for that they’ll receive a London living wage.”

In addition to the cooling effect of the pandemic, young people from non-white backgrounds are typically less able to take up unpaid internships: 63% state they can’t get the right work experience, and creative industries are 88% white and disproportionately male.

The Big Issue’s Breakthrough editorial program manager Tufayel Ahmed says that the aim of the scheme is to provide a comprehensive journalistic education to the four successful applicants. To that end they will be experiencing every aspect of “what it is to be a journalist in this day and age”.

It is all in service of ensuring that the journalism industry becomes a little less rarified and difficult to gain entrance to. Ahmed says: “It’s taken a lot for these conversations to happen. After the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement after the events of last summer... it’s become more normalized to be able to talk about inequalities in newsrooms, [but] I don’t think we’re there yet.

“The NCTJ figures were still 92% white – that’s only 2% down from being 94% five or six years ago. And it still really does cater to the middle classes. The barriers are huge and immense.”

An endemic issue

In September Reach also acknowledged the need for better representation in its newsrooms by signing up to the 30% Club. Reach’s head of diversity and inclusion Julie Humphreys said at the time: “This year Reach has made diversity and inclusion a priority and I was brought in as part of this focus. While we still have a lot of work to do, I’ve been really encouraged by the enthusiasm and commitment across Reach to become a more inclusive workplace.

Despite efforts from campaigns such as PressPad and similar initiatives at the i newspaper, the accepted path into the journalism industry remains either by getting a degree from an accredited university or through unpaid placements. It’s a situation that has been exacerbated by the shrinking local news economy, where regional titles offered more points of entry for young journalists.

As Ahmed points out, while many UK publishers do have diversity and inclusivity targets, too often they do not go far enough: “When you look at newsrooms, and you see how they’re structured, and who’s in those newsrooms, it’s still predominantly white middle class.

“I think sometimes, cynically, it can be a box-ticking exercise, or to be seen to be doing something – while the make-up of the newsroom from executives down to editors to senior reporters tends to be more middle class and white. We still haven’t really got to grips with the fact that we need diversity at all stages of the newsroom and not just at the bottom.”

Ahmed says that the Kickstart scheme provides funding for the first six months and The Big Issue has committed to adding to those funds so that those taking part will be paid the London living wage. From there the aim is to expand the scheme in subsequent years to more applicants in order to help grind away at the lack of representation within the news industry and provide young journalists with a leg-up within the industry.

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