Friday, April 23, 2010

Don't put your daughter in the meeja, Mrs Worthington

At this time of year I get more emails than ever from young people either looking for work experience, sixth formers wondering what A levels they should do if they want to be a star journalist or graduates who are wondering if we have any staff vacancies for young writers ("I am enthusiastic about all kinds of music, movies and contemporary culture, well-motivated and good at working as part of a team". This makes me wonder if they have any sense of what kind of "team" works on a monthly magazine and what they all do.)

It was never easy to know how to respond to this kind of enquiry in the past. Nowadays it's impossible. I turn down requests to address students because I can't think of any experience I could draw upon that might be of any use to a person making a start in the turbulence of today. Other than, are you really too late to think about doing something else? The sort of things you might have told people in the past – start as a freelance contributor, be available for holiday relief and if you're very lucky you might get a staff job - no longer apply. I have a fuzzy sense that young people would be better off if they developed a more entrepreneurial mind set and started aiming beyond the reviews section of the NME but I don't know how to tell them to go about it.

This generation, who have been the victims of "education, education, education" and have grown up being told that they could be anything they wanted to be, are finding that this is anything but the case. Among the twenty somethings I meet there's a palpable sense of betrayal. I wonder if we're seeing the trend of the 80s reversed. During that decade people who'd been prepared for quite mundane jobs and professions found themselves hitching a ride on the economy into an altogether more glamorous milieu. Hardly any of the people I worked with in those days had trained to do the job they ended up doing but there were more jobs than there were good people to fill them. In response to this surge, billions of pounds were then pumped into training people to take their place in Britain's allegedly booming creative economy. Now we find ourselves with all these people being unleashed into the market at the exact point that the creative economy has slammed on the brakes.

We're already starting to see the 80s trend in reverse. The people who have been trained for the glamour jobs are taking whatever there is, no matter how mundane. There's nothing wrong with mundane, of course, unless you've been raised to expect something altogether different.


  1. It's definitely a problem. We had to stop taking work experience people, because a) there wasn't enough for them to do; and b) if they weren't writing the cover story and were asked to do something less 'important' but nonetheless important to the running of the magazine they didn't come back the next day.

    They didn't think there'd be actual, you know, work to do.

  2. so very, very true. So many people want jobs as creatives, and they've studied 'being a creative' at uni - only problem is, it's not really something you can learn that much, you're either born a good creative or you're not.

  3. Earlier this year, a chum was teaching on a three-year music journalism course (I know!!), and told me that none of his second year students had had a byline anywhere, and when he asked what their professional ambitions were, they said it was to write gig reviews.

    I think that says a lot about both the quality of the course, which is clearly teaching kids nothing about the real world, and that of the students. Cue old woman ranting, but when I was 19 or 20, I actually wanted to learn to be a journalist, and wanted to write interviews and real features, not to just go to gigs and be paid for having a nice time. Or these days, be not paid for having a nice time.

  4. We recently advertised for two entry-level positions on our b2b print/internet publication. Hundreds of applicants (mostly from journalism course graduates), but 99% fell at the first fence. Can't write, can't spell, no curiosity, lacking even basic background knowledge. And despite being 'Gen Y' or whatever it is this year, most had the IT skills of Jen from the IT Crowd.
    "I have a lot of experience with the whole computer... thing. You know, e-mails, sending e-mails, receiving e-mails..."

  5. Luckily I don't depend on it to put food on the table; so, when editors are seeing how much they can afford to pay you, the fact that I can pick and choose my work means that (I hope) I never come across too needy.

  6. I'm co-Editor of a local (Nottingham) mag and website, and we were hiting up the local university for journalist students who want work experience for ages. Basically, the kind of offer I would have quite happily ripped someone's arm off for back in the day, with the chance to get your hands properly dirty and come out of it with a massive online and print portfolio.

    We stopped bothering after we got bombarded with plus one requests for Scouting For Girls at Rock City and the Sugababes at the Arena, and nothing for local bands in toilets - y'know, the places where you really learn your trade.

    I dunno what these journalism courses are like, but from what I hear, I'm relieved I never took one.

  7. I work in a small-ish TV production company and our production manager came into a meeting telling us that she had had the most excruciating with the mother of someone who wanted work experience. This woman had come into the office saying her son was really keen, and it appeared she had been doing the rounds on his behalf.

  8. I have some sympathy with graduates. Not the lazy, feckless kind, but the ones unforgivably let down by universities. The content of degree course bears no relation to the working life of a designer. It's true you can't teach creativity, but there's a plethora of practical knowledge, from working practices to dealing with clients, that young designers should be exposed to and given insight and guidance on. Too much emphasis is placed on cultivating ideas in an idealised utopia without involving the realities of bringing them to fruition in the real world.

    It's no surprise then that when they leave what confronts them is something very different, and they struggle. I can honestly say that I can barely remember anything I was taught at university which benefitted me or prepared me for my professional life. Too much had no practical application, and think that as much as anything contributes to the poor level of graduates we see.

  9. I teach media, but the first thing I tell my students is that I'm here to criticise and analyse, not to prepare people for a career in the media. I tell my film studies students that, like me, they'll probably end up *hating" most films.

    I think if someone ends up feeling very cynical about the media, concerned about its influence, and jaded about the flabby and overlong, cliché-ridden pap they get served at the multiplex, my work is done.

    To students who want to work "in the media," I say that the future is freelance, so the important thing is to have a variety of flexible, transferable skills (and to learn how to deliver accurate work on deadline). I tell them there are more PR professionals than there are journalists, and that they're more likely to find work in marketing for an SME than in advertising.

    I don't think that just because it's hard to find work in media that people shouldn't study it. That's like not doing physics because you're unlikely to find a job at CERN.

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  11. I have spoken to lots of students on media and journalism courses over the years, and there are always bright sparks - they're the ones who actually ask questions, and hang around at the end. It amazes me how shy the majority of them are. (I'm achingly approachable, or try to be.) It's a bad start to a media career if you are not of a suffiently enquiring mind to enquire, surely? (If someone from the "industry" guest-lectured at my college in the mid-80s, we bit their arm off to find to stuff out.)

    I did an art degree, which has to be the cushiest degree going, so I'm not being all protestant-work-ethic about this, but my guess is that there are so many media courses now, you're bound to get a large chunk of people doing them for want of something better to do. They can't ALL end up working in the media. So it's Darwinism, ultimately. The keen will rise to the top.

    David, you will remember when a student called Konnie Huq turned up at Emap in the mid-90s, filling in for the staff PA at Q, and she had ambition and enthusiasm and ingenuity written through her like a stick of rock.

    Within a couple of years, she was a Blue Peter presenter. She was closely followed by another student, also filling in, called Sarah, who I believe now runs the Time Out website, having made herself indispensible at 6 Music inbetween.

    When I was at the NME, a student phoned me up and demanded that she write our next Manics cover story. I told he there were proper channels, but I met her at a gig, and she was clearly going place. In the end, she bypassed the NME and is now a senior political journalist at the Guardian, currently stationed in China.

    Why do work experience if you're not going to wring every last drop of opportunity out of it? Unless, hmmm, you've been misled to believe that these jobs fall into laps.

  12. I think the problem is that Universities have gone out of subjects which were about learning and into vocational subjects, and convinced people that this was necessary. Many parents have looked at the success of people who went to university and assumed that this was a good thing for their children (despite the huge debt).

    The way around this is, like you say, entrepreneurialism. I'd encourage anyone who wanted to go into programming or internet design to just start doing it as early as possible and start practising and even getting minimum wage work with software companies. Unless you plan on programming at Pixar or Google, you probably don't need a Comp Sci degree. The main benefit of having one is to get your foot in the door so if you can find another way through work experience, it will be a lot cheaper and more valuable.

  13. I'm part of the generation you describe and, you're right, things aren't particularly easy, but I'm not sure if it's any harder than it used to be (mind you, I guess I wouldn't know, would I?).

    I'll be honest; I want to be a music journalist and am looking for work at the moment, but I'm not getting any rejections... in fact, I'm not getting any replies whatsoever.

    I think a lot of this is down the double-edged sword known as the Internet. The Internet means my writing portfolio is just a click away, but it also means I'm likely to be lost in a sea of other wannabe hacks. I'm lucky enough that I have a full-time job, but I'm not sure I can ever see myself earning enough money from writing to quit it, and that's a real shame.

    I agree that I'm part of the "think they can do anything" generation, but I don't think it manifests itself in the form of people emailing you hoping to get a free ticket into the industry. People going on reality television shows proclaiming that to perform is their "life's dream" and thinking that will get them through is far more symptomatic of what you describe.

    Anyway, to get to my actual reason for posting - any spare jobs going, David?

  14. Joe
    You're obviously a sensible sort but nonetheless I think you're looking for something that hardly existed in the past and won't exist at all in the future - a staff job as a music journalist. People write to me saying, "if you ever have any vacancies". I know we're a tiny company but I think the same thing would apply to a large company. If you did want to recruit somebody - and everybody in the private sector has at the very least a recruitment freeze on at the moment - you'd have a very clear idea of the role you wanted them to fill and you'd know two and a half people who would be the right person to do it. Then there's the broader question about how the changes in the media impact upon your situation: when I entered "music journalism", there was only one way you could do it and that was by working for one of handful of nationally published papers that dealt in this commodity. Nowadays, you can start writing about music in the next ten minutes and get somebody to read what you wrote. What you won't have is the platform provided by a huge brand. But you can build a little platform for yourself. It's not much, I know, but it's something. The thing I find most disappointing about the attitude of lots of young journalists is that they seem nostalgic for a world they never knew when they should be finding a way to carve out a place for themselves in the world that we live in. And for that you don't need IPC or Bauer or Development Hell. How you make money out of it I don't know. But nor does Rupert Murdoch.

  15. Ha, is that a "no", then? Since I hadn't had any replied previously, I'll take that as progress!

    Seriously though, I'm aware that a staff job is virtually impossible to land; I'd already decided that freelancing was the way forward. You say that everybody knows "two and a half people who would be the right person" and I'm sure that's true; I want to get to the position where I'm one of those two and a half people.

    Everybody started somewhere and, at the risk of proving your theory about Generation... whatever my generation is called, someone has to make it, right? I'm not saying it's my given right, but I'm sure as anything going to give it a shot. As I say, I have a job and I can go back to something similar.

    If neither you nor Murdoch (I've heard he's a fairly canny businessman) know how to make money out of this, then it's unlikely I'll stumble upon the secret of alchemy. So, until then, it's old-fashioned hard work, attempting to network and optimism.

  16. Advice to would-be music journalists: go to a gig, turn it into a clean bit of copy, give it to the publication. Repeat.

    More advice to would-be music journalists: if they don't use your copy, put it on your blog. Put other stuff on your blog. Affiliate your blog with other blogs and online publications. Realise that a successful blog is a serious achievement.

    --- Yesterday, for the first time in 28 years of hackery, I had to /give/ a piece away:

  17. I'll go further. Put it on your blog even if they do publish it.

  18. I forgot to say: when giving your copy to the publication, say the magic words. "You don't have to pay me."

  19. Anonymous5:28 pm

    Unfurling this slightly more, TV is much the same, if not worse. I've lost count of the people I've had 'trailing' who actually have more skills and experience than I could dream about. Most of the runners who bring us our tea & biccies are the product of 'media' courses and see a bit of brewing up as a way in to the industry.

  20. Don't know if this thread is still going but felt compelled to reply.

    I've done plenty of music journalism: gig reviews, festivals, band interviews, CD reviews and so forth and never received a penny. I did it because I wanted the byline, the experience and the freebies.

    I've never seen anyway though that I could turn this into a full-time job as it is almost impossible to turn this portfolio for a small, run-by-two-people website (and other online cuttings elsewhere) into something that could feasibly get me a job at a national mag or something.

    Then, in a random way, I had the pleasure to meet Andrew Harrison from Word last September after winning the Jack Daniels' guitar playing competition in the mag and, on meeting him, offered to write a review of the experience for the magazine. It didn't really seem like a way to leave behind my B2B job and become a music journalist, but it was an opportunity to offer to write that I couldn't pass up. My journalism tutor said to us we should never be shy of pitching an idea: something that stuck.

    Chatting about music journalism with Andrew that day he said that these days it seems almost impossible to move into the music press (especially as people get to a position they like and stay there) and that it seems more logical to do music writing as an aside to a full-time role; which for me seems most likely to be in B2B.

    Given the lack of money, or mostly, in consumer titles, especially music (it seems to me at least), writing for free(bies) seems about the best you can hope for, and if you do get paid it's likely to be for a pittance. Which personally is fine by me. Too many journalism student ignore the idea of B2B as, somewhat understandably, it sounds dry, dull and uncreative, whereas in actual fact its anything but (although it is on some occassions).

    Ultimately though, seeing my name in Word, even if through a competition, was a pleasing sight.

  21. Fascinating thread and some great comments. I would only add that there are great jobs out there, and Joe is right, someone's got to get them. It's just that there aren't many and in most sections of the media there are less now than when I started this sentence.

    I run what most people would consider to be a fairly glamorous business and we are inundated with requests for work experience, and when we advertise for a full time gig we're swamped. The last web producer I appointed, I said to him, "why are you leaving your current job?" "It's for a fashion magazine and I was working for nothing but then they stopped paying me the tube fare so I can't afford to get to work." That's not work, that's exploitation.

    I won't take on work experience hopefuls unless I have enough work to justify paying them. The concept of the workie raises false hope and allows businesses to exploit young people, while telling themselves they are helping them. It really does stink and the media are the worst culprits.

  22. Anonymous5:06 pm

    I run a B2B and I agree that it's under-rated, in terms of job opportunities, by the rest of the media.
    My current job is by far the most creatively-fulfilled I've ever been, plus I get much more autonomy and creative control than I could on a major publication.
    It might not be everyone's dream job forever, but it's the best way to earn a living that I've discovered so far ...

  23. Fine, if depressing, piece, David. I've just dropped out of an arty-ish University, and there were enough hopeful writers/journalists/photographers in my year alone to swamp a few creative industries. The sense of impending disappointment hung clearer than the ash from Icelandic volcanoes. (I write that, naturally, while hoping that I'll be the exception. Sometimes I wish that my parents had forced me to write, while dropping occasional hints of a distant, Edenesque paradise: the checkout!)

  24. If it's any encouragement, Ben, I spent most of my twenties marking time in various jobs - teaching, couriering, working in a record shop, being a plugger etc - none of which I regarded as "a career", until an opportunity came up doing something I thought I was good at that also paid quite well (that meant £4,500 a year in 1979). This applied to most of the people I ended up working with in the media. None of them had trained for it and when they got any kind of opportunity they grasped it with both hands because they knew it was their way out of "a proper job". I think the challenge faced by people in their twenties nowadays, and that applies to my children so I'm very sympathetic, is that they've grown up thinking that the world wasn't going to be like this. And the people who told them it wasn't going to be like this were their teachers and parents.

  25. I am *very* late to this but as a journalism tutor (I taught Dan, above) at a university with a good reputation I'd like to add my tuppence worth.
    You are right about the perceived "need" for university education in something that is, at its most basic, an ability to sling a few words together. However, we all know that journalists, especially on magazines, are expected to have many more skills than that, so there is a genuine benefit in being taught (and tested on) how to sub, how to do basic layouts, how to use a CMS, as well as learning how to put that writing ability to use in different genres and platforms.
    Nevertheless, I am still taken aback when students seem gobsmacked by the fact that someone who has got on in the industry has done so with no formal training – speakers at PTC events and so on.
    Although I run a 9 month postgraduate course I also teach a 12 week undergrad module and, again, I am astonished at some of the feedback I get – eg "I do not feel this module has prepared me for a career in magazine journalism" (Well, no, it hasn't and nobody said it would) or "The tutor seemed unapproachable" (You have to approach me first! You want to be a journalist – they approach people and ask them things!).
    There is definitely more of an "on a plate" attitude among university students and, often, also a rather distasteful element of "I'm better because I've been to uni ..." [By the way, "uni" – hate the abbreviation]
    I am not surprised to hear about a mother doing the rounds for her child's work experience. University open days are aimed more at the parents, who fill the corridors and lecture halls. I mean, I ask you ...
    Finally, I am absolutely sure that you would be able to pull a huge amount from your trunk of experience that would benefit those with the ears to hear.

  26. "Uni" is a horrible expression, but that's what they all call it.

  27. Appreciated your words, David. I'm halfway through my first year of an undergrad degree in Journalism.

    If it's any reassurance to the various industry types expressing their concerns above, we're already seeing more than a 10% drop in numbers after only eight months.

    I have an advantage over these eighteen-year-old booze fiends who are only here because they got a B in English and don't like the idea of studying Sociology; I'm twenty-five, I've worked in a true office environment and I've even been lucky enough to get work experience on a local rag, so I'm more than willing to muck out - which I know I will have to do if I want on the first rung after graduation.

    I wonder what our first Placement course will do to our numbers?

  28. I gave Stevie Nicks the clap. Can I have a job?