Journalism still the key to careers in writing

I never really thought much about this until someone drew my attention to an article Journalism is becoming a profession for only the rich so why won't anyone talk about it? published in Australian online media journal, Mumbrella

The proposition is that professional writing is now something of a luxury in which only those who don't really need to derive a regular income from writing can indulge. Largely, it bemoans the loss of opportunities to enter journalism, but i would argue that recent facts point in another direction.

I am lucky enough to have had the rare opportunity to benefit from a journalism cadetship which was, in truth, a humbling reality check on my ability to write. Therefore I understand that I risk being criticised for speaking from a position of relative privilege by young writers trying to get a foothold into their career of choice.

I fully sympathise with the challenges for a community of young Australian writers, about whom Mumbrella notes: "On the surface, Young Australian Writers is an invite-only Facebook group set up as a forum for aspiring authors under 40. In reality, it operates more as a kind of support group for its 3,500 frustrated members, many of whom are trying to get their first job in journalism."

However, the funnel into a journalism career has always been narrow. When I scored a cadetship in 1978, there were four people selected out of over 400 applicants for The Courier-Mail. At the Sydney Morning Herald, where I applied and missed out, there were five selected from over 600. 

Since then, the commercial and economic drivers of media have changed. Media companies trying to produce quality journalism are competing with the pulp fiction of social media platforms that give scant regard to integrity and a voice to uninformed opinion and diatribe. In traditional channels, journalism is often devalued and debased, as the line between editorial and commercial content is all but erased.

Fostering talent is an investment, which means the commercial mandarins sitting atop media companies want to understand what the return on it looks like.

The starting point for creating opportunities for and in journalism is therefore to restore the value and integrity of the profession. The achievement of that relies upon us as consumers of media to escape the echo chamber of social media and value other perspectives and views in the curated space of professional journalism.

There are positive indicators that things are changing, as the desire for informed and verified news and commentary is returning.

Subscriptions for quality publications overseas, like the New York Times and Wall Street Journal are on the rise*. In Australia, Fairfax Media, which is in the process of being consumed into the television-based Nine Network, announced in May that it would recruit 20 cadet journalists across its media platforms, saying it was a "significant investment" for the future. The government-funded Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) offered eight of its coveted cadetships in 2018. 

Of course, there are 3,500 people in the Young Australian Writers community. I have no idea of the total number of journalism cadetships offered in Australia each year, but even if it is 100, it is obviously well short of satisfying their demand and others. 

Journalism cadetships are not the only source of demand for writers. A by-product of corporate investments in web blogs, social content and automated marketing platforms has created a demand for writing skills greater than ever before. 

I am one example of the many ex-journalists employed in the corporate world.  Some of Australia's biggest superannuation (pension) funds collectively publish their own online newspaper, The New Daily. ANZ Bank is a prolific publisher through its Blue Notes platform. Health insurers, not-for-profit and community organisations are all generating content. 

There is no doubt that writing is to some degree a natural talent, coming much easier to some than others. But even a precociously gifted footballer like Christiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi benefits from coaching and finessing their talent so that it can be effectively turned into something of value to others.

When I left school, I thought I could write. My first encounter with harsh reality was a English literature tutor at Queensland University named Joan Huddleston. Accompanied by the laborious collection of short essays, The Norton Reader, she demolished any self-belief in writing ability, with scathing commentary and 'Fails' on literary reviews. 

After being thoroughly 'Joaned' and having completed a journalism major, my next moments of truth were at the hands of my journalism cadet counsellor on The Courier-Mail. I feel ashamed that I cannot remember his name. I think it was Roy and perhaps my failure to accurately recall his name is because I found the merciless drubbing of the copy I submitted an absolutely soul-destroying if, in hindsight, necessary experience. 

These two people more than any others, demonstrated to me that evolving as a writer is a combination of a degree of talent, honed and tuned through the furnace of some pretty roasting critiques and diligent coaching.

The many businesses that run seriously good communications platforms usually recruit experienced journalists, while those companies with lighter wallets often commission regular office staff, who are mostly untrained writers. 

This is why journalism cadetships remain essential to creating opportunity for aspiring writing talent. The nub of the issue for young people aspiring to be professional writers is access to formal training in an environment where writing is the organisation's core business and value proposition.

This is missing across the whole spectrum of corporate publishing and, with due respect, university communications courses are not an adequate substitute. 

* New York Times, New York Times Co subscription revenue passed $1 billion in 2017, 8 February 2018. Cxense, The New Paywall Is “Bendable”: How the Wall Street Journal Grew Subscribers by More Than 30 Percent, 27 April 2018. Australian media companies, especially better quality mastheads, are starting to show improvement in digital subscriptions. Roy Morgan Research, Newspaper masthead readership grows to 15.9 million, 8 February 2018.