MJ Edmunds
June 20, 2012 — By MJ Edmunds

Journalism at the precipice — or is it?

The news this week that Fairfax would axe 1900 staff and streamline beyond recognition, is like hearing about the passing of a friend after a long illness. News you’ve been expecting still comes as a shock. Newspapers were for many years at the centre of my life as a journalist, sub-editor, and an editor. Since […]

The news this week that Fairfax would axe 1900 staff and streamline beyond recognition, is like hearing about the passing of a friend after a long illness. News you’ve been expecting still comes as a shock. Newspapers were for many years at the centre of my life as a journalist, sub-editor, and an editor. Since the late 70s I’ve worked for  a dozen or so newspapers in Australia, Hong Kong and the UK. Although a part of who I am, newspapers play almost no part in my professional life now.

A glittering, non-award winning career… I was on the staff of the Financial Times for 15 years, and wrote regularly for the Australian Financial Review, and The Australian and for business magazines from 2004 until 2010. Aspiring journalists would contact me for tips on how to get jobs or assignments. I’ve taught at three universities, helping a few students to get their work published, and paid for, in top papers. Few of you will get jobs at mainstream newspapers, I said to my students as a statement of fact. Journalism is moving towards niche markets. Learn how to produce your own content and products, and how to run yourself as a business, I said. I suggested to journalism educators that business education be a part of vocational training. They looked at me blankly.

I knew it would be tough… let’s multiply that! I didn’t have all the answers then, and still don’t, even though I could see how it was going, and started adjusting to a future of self-employment and generating work 15 years ago. On December 5, 2011, the Media section of The Australian ran a story I sent on spec about the end of the print runs for the two regional daily newspapers I started with – the Coffs Harbour Advocate and the Tweed Daily News. The closures were not good news. How will elderly people who’ve never been online find out when a friend has died? Our children will never know what it is to see their picture in paper. When the story ran I received many emails from journalists who felt like me, and from readers who loved print newspapers, and from readers who read on iPads but still like a local paper. I received praise from the editor for my ‘very, very good’ work, completed to my normal standard. I have not written for a newspaper since. Recently the Media and Arts Alliance sent a renewal notification asking me to state what level of membership best matched my income from journalism. I replied that it was the lowest rate as I had no earnings this year from journalism and now think it unlikely I’ll make any in 2012. Of course, I can still get items in newspapers. It’s perfectly possible so long as I detach myself from the idea of being paid a professional rate, or in some cases, anything. Unsurprisingly, I’ve stopped thinking of journalism as my job.

It’s a long way to the shop if you want a sausage roll…. Payment can take up to 60 days after publication, and this often follows long lead times between being commissioned to the deadline and then to publication.

Editorial protocols .. And there are silly things… you are commissioned to write, then two editors leave, and then the new editor waits till the time is right for the story, or until they can pair your story, to another story, by another journalist. The most extreme example ended up with me secretly writing a story under a pseudonym just so the newspaper could pair it with my story to publish it, and pay me for the feature they’d asked me to write a year previously. Around about then it all started to feel too hard. Who has time to apply subterfuge just to get paid for good work delivered in a timely fashion?

Trashing from within… Papers do silly things too, though usually these could be attributed to one silly editor or an executive with a surplus of power and a deficit in having a clue. One that comes to mind is a former editor of a leading business newspaper who cut costs by curtailing library access to freelance journalists writing for the paper. This edict perplexed, mortified and frustrated the very committed and professional editors who kindly accessed library files for freelance writers from behind the paywall. I guess it made us even better at using Google! But the words shoot and foot came to mind.

Paying for what you’ve consumed… Then there are the papers that commission stories to a certain length then say they’ll pay only for what they use. It’s like being served dinner and expecting to pay only for what you eat from the plate. The ingredients still needed to be sourced and the preparation time is the same. So journalists end up carrying the business risk. I worked out a formula that a journalist would have to increase their output by 40 or so per cent just to ensure on the law of averages they’d be paid. This is no way to live. Occasionally, I’d forget all of the challenges, and think it must just be me, that I was being negative, that I just needed to keep at it. So I’d approach a newspaper or magazine. An international magazine I approached a couple of weeks ago loved my idea, gave me a long list of hoops the story had to jump though, and said that they’d pay GBP40. And journalists are the ones who are expected to remain ethical!

What does this it all mean? The stories that I, and other journalists see that need covering, go completely uncovered. Anyone with dodgy dealings they want to carry on with unchecked upon need only conduct their activities in a town or city without its own local newspaper. There’s plenty to choose from. The news that remains easy to find is the grab, the politician harping on and (carb)on. Cheap journalism. Meanwhile, real stories, real analysis is treated as a luxury.

Journalist in the wild.. I suppose it’s an advantage that I have been in the wilderness for a while, and actively engage in other work to do with writing. I had to, but luckily I love it too. I would say to any of the newly redundant journalists, don’t look at now, look at where you think you can go, and most of all start to plan for what you really want to do, apart from working in a big newsroom that is. Feature writing has always been one of life’s great challenges and pleasures for me. It’s hugely satisfying to research, to interview, and to weave disparate information into a meaningful story. Very often you’re the only person ever to join the dots of the story… Unfortunately, however, it’s not good business. Well, not in newspapers. But elsewhere it can make sense. Companies, philanthropists, co-operatives, anyone else can publish now too. And just watch out, for increasingly they will.

Marian Edmunds, The Writing Business.