Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

‘Hold the front page, I haven’t got a clue’

Posted in Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on May 17, 2010

Image: Chris(UK) on Flickr (cc)

Thanks to Claire Wardle of Media140 for pointing me in the direction of a Sunday Times article yesterday, which shows how much has got to change in our ideas of journalism.

Hold the Frontpage, I want to be on it‘ by Ed Caeser made it into the Times’ Education section, and paints a predictably bleak picture for journalism students graduating this summer.

“…almost every week I receive an email from some poor sap wanting to know how to break into the business” he says. And what advice can said poor sap expect to receive from Mr. Caeser?

“Today, you’ll need luck, flair, an alternative source of income, endless patience, an optimistic disposition, sharp elbows and a place to stay in London.”


The article then goes on to interview five or six people who have had the luck, flair, patience, trust fund and London pad necessary to get a job on the Mirror, Daily Mail, Telegraph etc. And what advice can they give?

“Patrick Foster worked at The Times during Oxford University vacations, and stayed after graduation. Kate Mansey came in through the Liverpool Echo trainee scheme — one of the few local-newspaper training schemes still in operation — and began on the nationals by working temporary shifts.

“Many graduates simply turn up on work experience and refuse to leave. It worked for me.”

So, just to sum up: have an Oxbridge degree, and turn up to your work experience placement with a sleeping bag and a three months supply of tinned meats.

How to actually survive in the new age of journalism

Caeser gets one thing right: he realises journalism is changing. The advice he has sought, however, is for an era in the industry heading towards the grave.

He is stuck in the mindset that to have any career worth having in journalism it has to be working on a national newspaper or big broadcaster, and it has to be earned through unpaid work, desperate pleas to those already inside, a lot of luck, and presumably some sexual favours too.

But the crux is this: as Claire Wardle said when she threw this article my way, there is no mention of entrepreneurial journalism.

Caeser hasn’t even thought about it.

The very concept that the next generation of journalists might take control of their careers, become the chess player and not the chess piece seems alien to him; that these ‘poor saps’ might see opportunity where he only sees despair.

So here’s my advice: if you’re just starting out in journalism don’t read this article.* While you’re at it, don’t make yourself ill eating nothing but Supernoodles for a month (as I once had to) just to afford a shitty flat in Clapham. Don’t spend hours squeezing the desperation out of a desperate email to that sub on the Guardian you chatted to briefly at some conference somewhere. And don’t think you should give up just because you live in the North of England, or you’re poor, or because Ed Caeser says you should.

Instead, do this:

Start looking for the brave, exciting new opportunities presented by this wonderful digital age we now live in.

Start thinking about what new niches are evolving which you can exploit with a savvy, bootstrapped new startup. Start thinking of ideas for profitable online magazines or mailing lists which you can leap straight to being the editor of.

Teach yourself how to film and edit simple video, and how to make basic audio slideshows so you can do as much of it as possible without having to hire expensive outside companies. Learn how to build a simple website using WordPress which could one day be the platform for a news business.

If you know how to, start developing a new iPhone or Android app which people will pay you to download. Or leverage social media and blogs to pitch yourself as a go-to expert on a profitable niche, then sell your knowledge in products. Or start making multimedia for non-profits and NGOs, and tell those stories and do the sort of reporting the New York Times or the Guardian would never let you do.

(For more suggestions click here and here)

The Next Generation Journalist is emerging, to whom, Caeser’s advice is completely redundant. It’s up to you which path you chose.

Caeser’s conclusion is, again, predictably bleak.

Just as belts are tightened and we are attempting to map our future in the internet age, the legions of graduates keep coming — arts degrees and journalism diplomas in hand — to join the party. Are they, by attempting to start their journalism careers in 2010, making what the hero of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland calls “a historic mistake”?

The only ‘”historic mistake'” to make is to ignore the fantastic opportunity to reshape journalism we now face. And it’s an opportunity which won’t last forever.

Are you a Next Generation Journalist?

*in fact do, if only to spot the subbing errors. On Sunday afternoon I found six.


28 Responses

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  1. […] to friend and multimedia colleague Adam Westbrook to this response to a thoroughly annoying article in this weekend’s Sunday Times by Ed Caesar, which says […]

  2. Alison Gow said, on May 17, 2010 at 8:24 am

    I read that article this morning Adam and, while it was lovely to see one of my old reporters (Kate Mansey, a former TM graduate trainee, who has done brilliantly for herself on the Mirror) featured, I thought the bleak tone was disappointing.
    I’ve spent my career very happily in the regionals but lots of colleagues have moved to work on national titles, and the most successful of those are the futureproofers who are open to new ideas (not just digital ones) and keep updating their skills.
    Getting into mainstream media does require persistence and/or a bit of luck but I thought the Times piece was glum, backward-looking and overlooked the positive opportunities that have emerged, such as the ability for journalists to make their voices heard independently of any mainstream brand.
    The other thing that really annoyed me was the ‘we expect you to work for free’ approach to interns that the article seemed to celebrate. Why should we expect anyone else to value journalism when we put zero value on it ourselves? It’s not work experience, it’s exploitation.

  3. David Banks said, on May 17, 2010 at 8:27 am

    What the article fails to mention about Mansey and Foster is that they both attended the, then, Trinity Mirror training scheme in Newcastle (on which I used to teach), now being run by Press Association Training.

    There are many others, not Oxbridge, who have graduated that scheme and are now on nationals, or national TV/radio.

    Getting yourself on a good training scheme which gives your a grounding in writing and producing content for print or web, can help you get that foot in the door.

    I left PA four years ago, so no conflict of interest, but of the short courses round the country, I reckon it’s the best and worth the invstment of time and money.

  4. […] the piece lacks examination of new paths and opportunities in journalism. Adam Westbrook fills in one of the gaps on his blog: Caeser gets one thing right: he realises journalism is changing. The advice he has sought, […]

  5. Jonathan said, on May 17, 2010 at 9:13 am

    An excellent and constructive post for all journalism graduates.

    The industry may be suffering but here’s a great opportunity for graduates to get creative and to try digital tools; whether video, podcast, email or Twitter – and ultimately, to differentiate themselves from others.

    We’d much rather take on someone who can show they’ve tried these digital tools – than someone who has finished top of the class.

  6. rosieniven said, on May 17, 2010 at 9:18 am

    Good piece Adam. To be fair, one interviewee did mention being an entrepreneurial journalist. Helen Pidd said she told interviewers at the Guardian that she wanted to set up her own magazine before deciding to take the Fleet Street route.

    But a good critique. I think this clamour for internships at nationals and broadcasters is leading to lots of candidates with identikit CVs. Degree > Diploma > internship. If that continues it will be the more entrepreneurial ones that really stand out, with a portfolio across several mediums and some evidence of getting something off the ground.

    As for subbing errors, I spotted three – though given another read-through I might spot a few more.

  7. ciara leeming said, on May 17, 2010 at 9:54 am

    We all know it’s tough out there (and getting tougher in my experience) but the thing that bugged me most about the ST piece was the rather condescending attitude that you don’t qualify as being a “success” unless you have ‘done’ London and got a staff job on a national. I find that quite insulting to be honest.

    This to me is symptomatic of the arrogance of the UK media and it’s something I am acutely aware of every time I visit London and meet fellow journalists down there. London isn’t the only thing that matters guys! And people can enjoy working on regionals without aspiring to become a staffer on a national. That’s not the only measure of success….

    In fact some of my colleagues from when I worked at the likes of the Manchester Evening News were certainly far better journalists than some of the well-connected or trustafarian chancers who talk their way onto the broadsheets.

    And what about freelancing? Not one mention of it in the ST piece, as far as I can recall. I think thriving – or even surviving – as a freelance while carving your own niche in the media and doing what you love should be recognised for the top achievement it is. No matter what your income level or whether your clients are national broadsheets or not.

    Grumpy from Manchester.

  8. Michael Rosenblum said, on May 17, 2010 at 12:51 pm

    There is an absolute fortune to be made in the journalism business today and for the next decade. The whole apple cart of our industry has been turned upside-down and that means we are undergoing a massive reorganization of our industry. Think offices and computers in the 1980s. The trick here is to see the big picture. Conventional jobs at places like newspapers or TV networks are dead ends- as dead as those parts of the industry. But there are several billion pounds laying on the table just waiting to be scooped up by any aggressive enough to go after them. And the path to that is most certainly not taking a job as a reporter at a newspaper. Look to iPads, online content and nonlinear video. It’s a whole new world out there.

  9. Sirena Bergman said, on May 17, 2010 at 1:29 pm

    Yes, the ST article was depressing, unpleasant and narrow-minded – but not altogether inaccurate. I realise that there was no mention of entrepreneurs, freelancers or regional / local papers. But for all those journalism students or graduates who are looking for a career on a national paper, all the issues raised are true. It is impossible to get a job in the industry unless you have months of unpaid internships behind you, meaning that it is increasingly a career for the better off.

    I would argue that the reason for this is the rising numbers of journalism students. When you have thousands of graduates flooding Fleet Street every year there has to be a new standard for employers to take into consideration.

    From what I’ve seen as a student, journalism seems to be one of the least meritocratic industries in the country. This makes me wonder if the issue we should be worrying about is really whether the internet will overtake print or – more importantly – whether there will be such a thing as quality journalism when my generation takes over.

  10. Marie Kinsey said, on May 17, 2010 at 1:32 pm

    Adam, you are quite right about the new opportunities for those who want to get into journalism. Flexibility and good ideas are crucial and the Sunday Times article seemed to me to be outdated and patronising.

  11. Tim said, on May 17, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    Thanks for your article Adam, I followed a tweeted link to your blog, and it makes for both informative and hopeful reading.

    I’m an undergrad on a Journalism course in darkest Leeds, and so far the faculty have been…reticent about the situation facing the modern media. Between their reluctance and the general motivation of an eighteen-year-old student, the perils facing graduates aren’t really being discussed.

    So I found Mr. Caeser’s article initially helpful, but ultimately worrying – whereas your article, and some of the comments preceding mine, make for more encouraging reading. I’m not sure how many lecturers might be reading this, but I hope some of them might take a risk by informing us of the risks!

  12. William Chambers said, on May 17, 2010 at 8:02 pm

    Good post Adam. The truth of it is that young journalism students about to graduate such as myself may be facing a harsh environment, but equally we have the least to lose in the industry.
    There is no place I can’t travel to, nothing I can’t at least try and learn, I am willing to work harder for less and none of that is a depressing thought. I am not going to make much money with a staff job or being an entrepreneur anytime soon, but it is a real mistake to think that there is a “right way” of doing journalism.
    Of course we have to work hard, but haven’t people starting in careers always had to do that? There are opportunities pretty much wherever you are willing to make them and I guess that is what Ed Caeser fails to acknowledge.

  13. Jonathan Kennedy said, on May 18, 2010 at 1:50 am

    As a postgrad student at Sheffield University, I almost didn’t want to read the article when I saw it because I knew what it would say, broadly speaking. That yes, getting onto a national is difficult without the time, money and (as I think Ed Caesar mentioned) the charm to wangle your way into an internship or a job.

    There will always be wannabe journalists who think that working on a national is the be all and end all of the job, and with good reason. The national press is exactly that, national. It sets the agenda, it covers national and international news, and for some journalism students the prestige is irresistable.

    The bigger picture however is an industry heavily over-subscribed, brimming with driven and determined students who will do anything they can to land that job, but many of whom will simply never get there because there isn’t a job for everyone. Is this itself a problem, being over-subscribed?

    I was dismayed to find out that Sheffield is launching not one but three new MA courses this September. With the greatest respect to Marie, I cannot help but think this is a cynical ruse to lure even more wannabes into expensive postgrad programmes, and to what end? Where will all these postgrads go once they finish their courses, into PR maybe? We know how snobbish journos get about that.

    The problem to me seems quite clear. But it is simply not enough to shrug and assume that those who realise only during or after their postgrad that the industry is shrinking will turn to other careers afterwards; nor is it enough to dangle the digital talisman in front of them as Adam and others wish to do. Where is the revenue stream for such journalists, those like Josh Halliday at the SR2 blog? Who is paying him? What is the revenue model for these entrepreneurial websites? I would far rather take my chances with a company (any company, not even a media company) who sends me a pay slip at the end of the month than depend on Google Ads.

    A fair option would be for the Sutton Trust or other such organisation (certainly not the cynical, money-grabbing NCTJ) to expand the Journalism Diversity Fund and work with media organisations to increase the scheme of bursaries for students from poorer backgrounds, with guaranteed one year contracts on completion of their course and a probation period. These bursaries would fund students to do postgrad courses at a select number of universities around the country, depending on the quality of their teaching and their established relationships with these media organisations.

    This would essentially end NCTJ accreditation as the ‘gold standard’, because those universities offering courses but not involved in such a scheme would be at a huge disadvantage. It might sound elitist, but might it not work just a bit more fairly than the charade of pretending that someone with an NCTJ qualification from Norton College in Sheffield has an equal chance of working on The Guardian (or any newspaper in the current climate) as someone on the Sheffield University course?

  14. Marie Kinsey said, on May 18, 2010 at 8:54 am

    Just a point of clarification Jonathan – the new MAs we are launching are academic. They are not intended to turn people into journalists and will not be seeking accreditation of any kind. You should know enough by now to check your facts

  15. peter said, on May 18, 2010 at 2:28 pm

    In terms of lifestyle there is a still a huge difference between a reporter on a national paper and a new media journo-entrepreneur. So I don’t think you can trash the Times article for not fully exploring related pathways. A lot of those graduates want to work in a newsroom, more than they want to be journalists. It’s the whole Glittering Prizes thing.

  16. […] Next Generation Journalist by adamwestbrook on May 18, 2010 Thanks to all of you who left so many interesting and diverse comments on ‘Hold the Front Page, I haven’t got a clue‘. It’s had more than a […]

  17. […] by getting jobs on national newspapers, a fact some of his critics – such as Adam Westbrook here, Adam Tinworth here and various Twitterati – fail to grasp. He is dealing with […]

  18. Jonathan Kennedy said, on May 18, 2010 at 9:19 pm

    I’m pleased to be corrected on this point Marie.

    Out of curiosity, has there been such a huge demand for academic study of journalism that the university is launching three new programmes, or are they designed to appeal to international students?

  19. […] Times mag about getting into journalism. It provoked some critical comment, such as that voiced by Adam Westbrook on his blog, and, in the case of Adam Tinworth, “incandescent rage”. Roy Greenslade has also […]

  20. […] Adam Tinworth, a great blogger on journalism and digital media, and freelance multimedia journalist Adam Westbrook. Both pointed out the narrow focus of the original article. While Caesar compares the elements of […]

  21. […] Adam Tinworth, a great blogger on journalism and digital media, and freelance multimedia journalist Adam Westbrook. Both pointed out the narrow focus of the original article. While Caesar compares the elements of […]

  22. Paul said, on May 28, 2010 at 8:08 am

    Thank you, I really appreciate your input on the digital journalism era! And I agree to 100% – With my own experience to back up the points you made in this text!

    Now is the time for entrepeneurial journalism / media production.

    Developer (Web & Mobile)
    Writer & Videographer

  23. […] was some great work on show, and it was encouraging to see that despite the doom and gloom attitude being exuded by many these days around our profession, there are plenty of journos who are just […]

  24. […] week in London, freelance entrepreneur Adam Westbrook slated a Sunday Times article by Ed Caesar for not mentioning entrepreneurial journalism, saying that this […]

  25. […] Why Ed Caesar’s advice to young journalists is all wrong… […]

  26. […] Adam Westbrook writes about ‘entrepreneurial journalism’. Instead of  following the well-trodden paths to journalistic success, he writes, today it’s about carving out your own niche. […]

  27. […] it" by getting jobs on national newspapers, a fact some of his critics – such as Adam Westbrook here, Adam Tinworth here and various Twitterati – fail to grasp. He is dealing with reality.Tinworth is […]

  28. […] they try to get a job. (For earlier contributions, see Ed Caesar's article, with responses from Adam Westbrook, Adam Tinworth, Laura Oliver and from me) Andrews leaves aside one bone of contention – about […]

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