With newsrooms in a state of flux and old-fashioned news values losing out to Facebook algorithms and snackable content, it’s no wonder young journalists enter the industry with some trepidation. But how much of that worry is justified? Elizabeth Beattie talks to a group of newbie reporters to find out.
Last year I and 26 of my journo school classmates launched headfirst into an industry which is, to put it very gently, going through a time of change.
Under the threat of job cuts and amid controversy over the changing role of journalists, us cheap, bright young things were brought in to fill the gaps at lower cost and with more eagerness to please.
Starting my routine phone calls with the words “Hi, I’m a journalist from X publication and I would like to talk to you about X,” feels somewhat removed from the wide-eyed girl I was when I entered journalism school, the one who said she wanted to be a journalist because she “loves writing and listening to people”.
That’s still true, and I remain nerdily pro-research as always, but being a successful journalist in 2016 isn’t just about dignifying people’s experiences, writing eloquent opening paragraphs and speaking truth to power. It’s about traffic rates, “engagement” and proving your cost-efficiency to your employer.
My own interests lie in investigative journalism projects and thoroughly researched op eds. Because this isn’t practical at my current job, instead I find myself hunched over a laptop after work and over weekends in order to complete the stories I feel passionate about.
I may sound cynical, but there’s no doubt that the news media is changing. It’s important to be aware of how this alters story selection, the news readers engage with, and the restraints placed upon journalists.
The recent book Don’t Dream It’s Over: Reimagining Journalism in Aotearoa takes a look at the changing New Zealand media landscape through the perspective of established media commentators and academics.
In response, I spoke to first year out journalists about their personal experiences of these changes, and asked myself the same question: What is it like to work as a rookie journalist in New Zealand in 2016?
*Names have been changed
How hard was it to find a journalism job?
Andy: I found [work] pretty easy, but mainly because I was willing to move away. I think there are plenty of options out there provided you don’t feel you need your dream job straight away.
Lucy: It wasn’t too difficult, but that was more to do with timing. When my journalism course ended in late 2015, we hit a good time in the job market and most of us were employed straightaway. Fairfax Media had recently restructured, so there were plenty of jobs available there, but also all around the country.
Max: Not too hard, I applied for about eight regional papers in the North Island and ended up shortlisted for two and taking a job at a daily Fairfax masthead within a few weeks.
Sarah: It wasn’t too hard to find a job. there were enough going but you had to be prepared to move, which I did.
Ellie: Not hard at all, I was in my last week of journalism school and thought I had better apply for some. It’s definitely not my dream job but it’s a decent starting place.
What kind of support were you given as a new journalist?
Andy: I’ve been really helped by a few senior journalists showing me the ropes. I do get thrown in the deep end occasionally, but I think that’s just part of the job.
Lucy: I was given plenty of support and plenty of opportunity to have a crack at various styles of writing and reporting. I had one official mentor, and another few mentors which developed naturally.
Max: Support for new journos here was awesome, news directors and senior reporters alike go out of their way in the first few months to impart as much wisdom as possible. While that can be a bit of information overload I’ve always felt I could ask as many questions as I wanted of the other staff.
Sarah: I’ve been given pretty good support from my immediate colleagues so far as my development as a reporter goes. We have trainings (some much more valuable than others) probably once every couple of months. However, the support for managing stress, workload and hours is non-existent. Expectations around how many stories you should be doing are not clear, but seem higher than can be reasonably managed. It is accepted that everyone just works heaps of unpaid overtime, which really is a problem for such a stressful job.
Ellie: Quite a bit in some ways, like from older journalists, teachers, other new journos with advice, but there was a lot you just learnt on the job when you were pushed into the deep end and you had to flail about for a while.
Did your workplace make staff redundant during your time working there? And how did you feel about that?
Andy: Not while I’ve been there, but I think there was a round of redundancies shortly before I got there. You can always feel it looming and it’s really stressful.
Lucy: There have been plenty of redundancies since I started. No reporters have been made redundant since I started, but sub-editors and advertising staff have been dropping like flies. It is very difficult because often those people have been in the business for a long time and have families to support – I really feel for them. I’m a 23-year-old with hardly any responsibility or need for stability, but I get to keep my job when there are parents who need to support their families? I understand that the roles are different, but redundancies are always difficult.
Max: I started a few months after the big Fairfax culling so the office was still reeling a bit and morale was pretty low. Some of the big names had been cut and their counterparts left behind, it wasn’t an overall pleasant time to start but we were warned about that when we left journo school.
Sarah: Someone in sales was made redundant this week with about 10 days notice. Everyone was pretty angry on his behalf, but then our on site printing press is being shut down next year so about eight staff will lose their jobs in six months’ time. There haven’t been editorial redundancies in the 10 months I’ve been there but there was a big sweep shortly before I started. It made me feel really guilty as a new reporter because I knew my job came at the expense of someone much more experienced. There used to be 120 staff there three or four years back, now there are about 40. The entire bottom floor of our office is empty, as are several upstairs offices. It does lend a bit of a morose atmosphere to the place.
Have you done a ‘death knock’ or have you ever been pressured to do one?
Andy: I’ve done one, which was over pretty quickly. Obviously I didn’t want to do it, but I knew it’s expected of you. I had the kind where you know you’ve really intruded on someone in a time of grief. I very quickly apologised and ran away feeling like a piece of shit.
Max: I remember one tutor telling me that if you ever didn’t want to do a death knock you should just tell your editor you’re not comfortable. I’ve had to do a few, and while you get sworn at, it’s just part of the job. I know that the people asking me to do them have been in the same position when they were junior reporters so I know I’m not being asked anything out of order.
Sarah: I’ve done a few death knocks. I was asked to but definitely not pressured. It’s never nice – one time a woman started crying because another family member yelled at her for speaking to me. Equally though, another time the family was totally calm and fine to talk, so you never know how people are going to react. I’ve found the best approach is often to talk to neighbours or other ancillary people first. That way you can get an idea how the close family are coping and judge whether it’s appropriate to approach them. If not, you’ve then got people in the community as saying the family is devastated, which is a kind of happy medium.
Ellie: Yes, we had issues about the timing of death knocks. I was pressured into doing them sooner than I thought appropriate but they turned out fine despite that. I don’t mind death knocks too much though, it’s the car ride there that’s the worst.
Have you ever got a negative social media reaction to a story you’ve written?
Andy: I most often get that with stories about tragic events. People will get angry for us publishing the names of people who have died, usually saying something like “what if the family didn’t know?”, not really realising the process of how these things happen and that we aren’t monsters and would never release that information if the family weren’t informed.
Lucy: Not on social media, but I have had plenty of negative comments on the news site. I enjoy reading them, however, especially when they follow an opinion piece. That is part of the enjoyment of writing opinion pieces – seeing what the different reactions or feelings among people are.
Max: All the time, I’m almost driven to make a fake Facebook account every time I delve into the comments section, but as soon as you let it wind you up, you lose.
Sarah: Oh boy. I got off Twitter a while back because people would tag me in complaints about my stories, which is a pretty tiresome thing to wake up to in the morning. I also recently had someone try sell a “list of errors” he thought I had made in stories concerning him on TradeMe. Then there’s the usual “fan mail” and general comments you get on most stories, which can get personal sometimes.
Ellie: ‘Idiotic journalism’, ‘boring’, ‘killing brain cells’, are a few lovely comments from fans. The majority haven’t actually read the article though which is ironic seeing as they spent time writing sometimes pretty hurtful comments. It’s more funny than anything else now.
What type of journalism would you like to be doing?
Andy: Longer, feature writing. Which is kind of what everyone wants to do. There have been some more opportunities popping up in recent years on the multimedia side of things so I hope that keeps up.
Lucy: I would like to be doing more global stories – both long form writing and photojournalism overseas. I believe people are becoming increasingly dissociated with the world’s problems (specifically, I am passionate about refugees), happy to read a story and feel sad, then turn a blind eye. I want to write stories so powerful they make people sit up and pay attention. If I can’t do that through journalism, or make enough of an impact doing that, I would like to work in international relations.
Max: I was lucky enough to score the environment round and I love it, wouldn’t want to write about anything else. But in saying that every round has its merits if you know how to work it.
Sarah: I actually feel I’m doing the type of journalism I want to be doing already, most of the time anyway. So I guess I’m pretty lucky?
Ellie: A bit of everything, you can tell a story in many different ways, words, facial expressions, actions, voice, may as well do it all.
Are there any stories you regret writing/questions you regret asking?
Andy: There are always stories where I could have done things differently, but overall not really.
Max: There are no stories I regret writing, the only time I can see that applying is if for some reason I had caused a unforeseen negative consequence from a piece. Otherwise there’s been plenty of cringe-worthy barely news stories I’ve had to write, but you learn something from most of them.
Sarah: I don’t know that I ever regret asking a question; I regret more the ones I don’t. I do regret writing one court story about a sports coach who’d slept with 14 year old girl at the school he worked for. The more I learned about it the more I realised that, while the guy was 7 years older and should have known better, they were both consenting happy parties to their relationship. The shame and regret each suffered was only due to how everyone reacted. I felt my story made that worse, because I could only report what the judge, lawyers and police said.
Ellie: I once asked a man if a young boy was his grandson but it was actually his son, aside from that I think it’s more that I regret not asking some questions which could have opened up new topics. I’ve never regretted writing a story, but I have thought some stories that I’ve been assigned are a waste of my time.
How do you feel about being called a journalist?
Andy: Like a badass.
Lucy: I feel that people immediately assume I’m untrustworthy, and are more careful of what they say around me. That doesn’t particularly bother me, but it can be a little grating, considering the fact that I’d never quote someone or write about something if it wasn’t agreed to prior.
Max: I still feel like a child playing at a big-boy job. I haven’t been hauled off to the Press Council yet though so I can’t have stuffed anything up too badly. The journalist title is pretty sweet though, looks good on a business card.
Sarah: I tend to call myself a reporter because it feels a bit less ostentatious. That said, people respond with less suspicion and fear if you say journalist. I stopped telling random people (hairdressers, taxi drivers etc) what I do for a job though because I got sick of them whining about the “state of the media today” or why they have to talk to someone in Manila to get their paper delivery stopped. When they ask what I do I just say I do “sales stuff”.
Ellie: It makes me feel proud.
What advice would you offer next year’s journalism students?
Andy: Make sure you enjoy it. You will likely get paid abysmally, so if you don’t have some fun then what’s the point? Also, don’t let yourself be exploited. If you, say, work a shitload of overtime, you deserve some kind of compensation.
Lucy: To find what drives them and focus on directing your stories towards your interests. After months of writing stories that don’t particularly inspire you, you may feel disenchanted with journalism in general, when in fact it may just be the content you’re covering.
Max: It’s an industry of highs and lows: some weeks are shit and some are awesome, so don’t get disheartened if you get weeks on end of shitty news, especially at a regional. With shorthand: use it or lose the ability to do it. Regional papers are awesome – the sheer number and range of stories you get to write can help you feel out what topics you actually like to write about.
Sarah: Do a lot of work experience, because you learn 10 times faster. Also get some self confidence stat because the industry is harsh and will work you into the ground if you don’t know when and how to say no.
Ellie: Get contacts fast and always be on the lookout for a story. Know that for every negative comment there were a lot more people who read and enjoyed your work. Be proud of what you’ve done; in our profession we can actually make change in a lot of ways and make a difference for a lot of people. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you what you do isn’t important, because it very much is.