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Alan Geere: What happened next to the brightest and best

Between 2008 and 2011, Northcliffe South-East recruited 60 journalism trainees into weekly newspapers.

In the third extract from our serialisation of the new edition of What Do We Mean By Local?, their former boss Alan Geere, left, looks at how their careers have progressed, draws conclusions from the research and offers some recommendations for journalism education and training in the UK.


There are no formal entry requirements to work as a journalist. Unlike established ‘professions’ such as law, medicine or even accountancy, it is not necessary to pass examinations or be a member of a professional body to practise as a journalist. However, ‘local’ – as opposed to ‘national’ – newspapers prefer to take recruits who have demonstrated an appetite for journalism by undertaking a course of study in a relevant field. For the 2012-13 academic year there were 80 academic establishments offering 448 undergraduate (BA) courses and 171 postgraduate (MA) courses in some aspect of journalism, producing thousands of potential recruits.

This study looks primarily at trainees who have completed a pre-entry qualification accredited by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ). Employers know they are taking a recruit with knowledge of reporting, public affairs, law and shorthand while the trainee will have undertaken work experience and have a familiarity with the workings of a newsroom. There are currently 42 centres offering the NCTJ diploma, spread across further education, higher education and independent course providers. This provides a pool of hundreds of ‘qualified’ students for employers to choose from.

The traditional starting point for newspaper journalists is the weekly newspaper. While this approach is now rapidly changing with the advent of online news sites, there are still the most opportunities in this sector. With thousands of students qualifying every year with a journalism qualification it is not unreasonable to assume that those who do secure a position are among the ‘best’ or at least those with the most potential.

In 2009 the south-east division of Northcliffe Newspapers published 40 weekly titles from 12 sites across South London, Essex, Kent, Surrey and Sussex. Between 2008 and 2011, the group recruited 60 trainees. This study looks at how their careers have progressed, draws conclusions from the research and offers some recommendations for journalism education and training in the UK.

The Research

A database of the trainees was established and from interviews with editors, personal knowledge, internet research and ‘word of mouth’ the current (June 2013) whereabouts of each individual recorded. Follow-up questionnaires were sent out which form the basis of the quotes used here.

The NCTJ requires a trainee to spend 18 months on a newspaper before they can sit the National Certificate Examination (NCE) – now National Qualification in Journalism (NQJ) – so all of the research subjects had the opportunity to become a qualified senior journalist. The results can be divided in to five broad categories outlined below:

Stay-at-Homes

Nearly a quarter (13 or 21.7 per cent) stayed put and are still with a newspaper published by Northcliffe South-East. One is still a trainee after six years, another is now a senior editor and there are four chief reporters.

Comment: This group are either loyal and committed or cautious and unambitious. Either way most have done well for themselves, gaining promotion, status and the accompanying rewards. Some people have family ties and community connections that make it difficult to move on, but they can also be a challenge to motivate as they can tend to see their opportunities as quite limited.

Still in Newspapers

The same number (13 or 21.7 per cent) are still working in newspapers, but with other employers. Six have gone on to work with the local ‘opposition’, three to national newspapers and one in the Middle East.

Comment: It is interesting to see the age-old practice of ‘tapping-up’ is still alive and well! Reporters from rival publications typically mix on assignment and talk about their pay, conditions and any opportunities that may arise. Reporters on rivals are an attractive proposition for recruiting editors as they are likely to be local, knowledgeable and available. That six, or 10 per cent of the entire sample, have chosen this route is a significant number.

Still in Journalism

The biggest group (14 or 23.3 per cent) have taken the journalism skills acquired as a trainee reporter and used them in different, usually more lucrative, arenas. Five are with trade publications, four with online publishers, two in consumer magazines, two at news agencies and one in television

Comment: These other branches of journalism are less demanding about who they take. A trade magazine would often prefer an expert in the topic who appears to be able to write, rather than a trained journalist. And much of what a trainee newspaper reporter will have learned, like public affairs and court reporting will be of little or no value. But higher salaries, perceived greater job security and an easier life all lure trained journalists into areas where they can perform well using the skills they have gained. One former fast-track trainee and chief reporter puts it this way: ‘I would advise journalists not to write off trade titles, consumer magazines and online titles – but to make sure they are writing about a subject that they enjoy. I love writing about my topic, but I’m sure I would be miserable writing about inkjet printers all day.’

Jumped Ship

Ten of the group (16.6 per cent) are now in PR or marketing. Six were recruited by organisations that the journalist had worked with as a reporter (police, education, local authority) and four went to work in commercial PR.

Comment: Salaries are undeniably higher in PR and marketing. The close relationship with sales makes these careers a difficult or, indeed, impossible option for many journalists, but for some it makes a sensible option. As one ex-reporter says: ‘I’d reached the end of my patience with local journalism and the way it was going. My editor at the time did not make the job any more enjoyable with his panicking ways and high stress levels.’

Going it Alone

Some 10 per cent of the cohort (six people) are now freelance or running their own businesses. Four are freelance journalists (one in Spain), one runs their own publishing company and another a PR business.

Comment: It is perhaps too easy to confuse ‘freelance’ with ‘unemployed’. You can be a freelance the minute you walk out of the comfort of a newsroom and you can still be a freelance even if you are not working. Although anyone can be a freelance, regardless of experience or training, they will soon get found out if they can’t do they job so making a go of it is actually a difficult option. Others see it as a career progression. ‘Many people in my profession go freelance after making it to the top of the tree and they can make a fortune by writing a few features a month and doing the odd shift here and there – I’ve seen the invoices. This frees you up to do some work for titles in different industries that intrigue you, and this career path – while risky – appeals to me,’ says one ex-trainee.

But it is an escape from the rigours of community journalism with its demands and deadlines. As one reporter-turned-freelance writer puts it: ‘Sometimes I earn more in a month than I did as a staff reporter and sometimes less but the hours are always less and so is the stress!’

Now for Something Completely Different

The remaining four (6.6 per cent) are no longer involved in mainstream journalism. There is a teacher, an author, a shop assistant and a stand-up comedian.

Comment: It could be argued that this is a surprisingly low number, given all the travails of journalism over the past five years. That only four out of the 60 have chosen new careers is testament to the broader skills that journalism gives an individual.

Why Did They Stay?

A significant number (26 or 43.3 per cent) are still working in newspapers, so what went right for them? And what is so good about being a newspaper reporter? For many people it is simply the variety of the work:

I love meeting lots of interesting, funny, strange, scary people and being able to share their stories.

Meeting people from all walks of life, being given the opportunity to go to different places, and learn and experience things that most people wouldn’t have access to.

No two days are the same and you get to experience things you’d never have the opportunity to in any other job, which is stimulating.

Even some who have now left journalism have fond memories. ‘Each day was generally very different, and that sense of the unexpected made it a very exciting job. I was never really bored as a journalist.  I thrived on the busy and high pressured environment.’

The concept of ‘privilege’ also resonated. ‘I loved talking to people, it’s a real privilege to be able to speak to people who have been through something profound and to be let into their lives like that,’ said one respondent. Another commented:

I enjoyed the privilege of experiencing a vast array of situations that members of the public would not normally have the chance to do i.e. covering murder trials, days out with the police. My most memorable days were the harrowing yet fascinating court trials I covered, and the ones I spent with special ops police in their interceptor cars, embarking on 150mph chases and casually admiring the speed of the car with a man under arrest in the back of it.

For others, it is an all-round experience: ‘It’s a job that teaches you so much about life.’

Why Did They Go?

When asked why they had left the local press, one respondent said, very simply: ‘The abysmal pay.’ At Northcliffe South-East, the trainee pay scale was set out in advance to prospective recruits. Rewards were dependent on milestones reached in the training process by passing preliminary exams, including shorthand, and geographical position as some locations were deemed to have a more expensive cost of living (ie Tunbridge Wells) than others (Margate). The maximum salary available to a trainee was £17,000 per annum. Salaries were always explained at interview and never, in my experience, did anyone turn down a job because of the salary.

It is, therefore, somewhat surprising to find the issue of money regularly cited as a reason for disillusionment. ‘If the question is why did I make the move from local journalism to trade journalism then I would have to be honest and say the prime motivator was pay and job security,’ said one reporter, who joined from a private training establishment and left shortly after gaining his NCE in just under three years.

Another reporter cited the pay to working hours ratio – ‘I started on £14.5k working approximately 50 hours a week’ – while a former colleague said: ‘If there was a bit more money I’m sure many of those who slink off into PR would be tempted to stay in local newspapers.’ One former reporter put is rather eloquently: ‘The pay can be very difficult to live on. It’s not all about the money, but as much as you can romanticise the idea of doing something as a passion, it is important to be able to pay your bills and eat properly…’

So, what happens between accepting a job with salary expectations clearly explained and leaving just a few years later with poor money cited as a reason? The salaries are realistic for the creative industries and promotion to senior reporter, chief reporter, news editor and editor brings incremental rewards with the editor of even a small weekly paper earning more than £30k. Money is, I feel, is often used as an excuse to get out. Journalists who leave either during their training or shortly after qualifying can feel an embarrassment that they have abused their employer by accepting the training (at a cost of an average of £1,000 per head) and then jumping ship. Complaining that they are not compensated well enough is a convenient excuse when they are really finding the going too tough or they realise they are not good enough.

Disillusion – and Other Factors

So, what other elements lead to disenchantment with life as a newspaper reporter? Consider these responses to the question: ‘What is the worst thing about being a newspaper reporter?’
The salary. And people thinking you are scum of the earth for doing your job.

The pay, but also the inability to take a breather. There is nowhere to hide and if you are not 100 per cent focussed it is very obvious.

The pay, the occasional criticism you receive from readers and the lack of career progression.

The long, long hours, little thanks, little pay and relentlessness.

Working long hours for little reward.

Death knocks, press officers and low pay – in that order.

The never-ending cuts, which made it harder and harder to put in the time required to create the very best stories.

I felt an unreasonable demand was being placed on me and journalism had changed from my dream job to an unbelievable nightmare. When redundancy was offered I jumped at the chance.

The relentless nature of journalism is the price paid for the variety and privilege cited earlier. This ‘creative tension’ can also be one of the main attractions. Editors emphasise at interview that this is not an easy job. Perhaps some candidates weren’t listening.

Would You Do it All Again?

This can be the best job in the world but also the worst. You must be prepared to give it 110 per cent as cheesy as that sounds, but it’s not just a job but a way of life. It’s not glamorous like reporters in films and TV make it (although occasionally you do get amazing freebies!) it’s damn hard work but so amazing when you’ve scooped the rivals! You must be prepared to work for pittance and be the poorest you’ve ever been in your life and move hundreds of miles from home, but there is no other job like it. As a warning when your heart’s not in it any more it’s time to get out and there is limited progression on local papers.

Respondents were asked what advice they would have for young people wanting a job in newspaper journalism. The heartfelt replies, like the one above, give an insight into the realities of life as a young newspaper reporter. Another writes: ‘I wouldn’t sugar-coat the low wages and the reality of the job. It can be incredibly hard to move up, lots of aspects of it are frustrating and it is genuinely tough. I would say go for it, if you are passionate but be flexible and prepared to move on and mould your skills to other professions if you need to. There are so many rewarding things about the job.’

Rewarding, maybe, but not a career that is endorsed: ‘I hate to say it but I would urge them to reconsider a career in print journalism as it is an incredibly frustrating and bleak time for newspapers. Everything is moving online.’ Perhaps the realities have never been properly explained, as this respondent writes:

This is not an easy job. Don’t think you’re going to spend 12 months covering a few court cases, writing a few NIBs and then suddenly become a Guardian columnist overnight. You will work long hours; you will cover boring meetings; you will write about village flower shows and charity bike rides until you can’t think of any more ways to say the same thing; you will be threatened and told to f**k off by grieving relatives when you do death knocks; you will be shouted at by criminals who don’t want you to cover their court case; you will be moaned at by readers who aren’t happy with the way they’re portrayed in your story; your copy will be changed by your editor. If you think you can handle all this and still have the energy, enthusiasm and confidence to make solid, reliable contacts and find fantastic exclusives, while being paid peanuts, then you will make a great journalist!

Commentary and Recommendations

Trainees are a good option for employers. They are cheap, have few employment rights, are keen to impress and are mostly ‘young, free and single’ meaning they are flexible, adaptable and can pushed around. They are less attractive to their immediate supervisors, usually editors and news editors. Their writing may need a lot of work, they require a lot of briefing and debriefing and some jobs are simply not suitable to a young, inexperienced person.

Trainees are usually spared in rounds of job cuts as ‘efficiencies’ are aimed at more expensive staff, so have a job security they do not often appreciate. But the trainee system often falls down at the newspaper office. There is no oversight of the quantity or quality of support, mentoring and ongoing training provided by senior staff. Many groups previously had training editors or managers whose role was to provide support for the trainees. Now, stretched editors are unable, or even unwilling, to devote much time or effort to the training of the novice journalists.

A logbook detailing the trainees progress and showcasing a range of stories has to be submitted as part of the exams to qualify as a senior. Supervisor’s comments and signature are required as part of this process but it is common practice for both the trainee and supervisor to complete this logbook in retrospect negating the value of the ongoing training it is intended to provide.

Recommendation 1.

Devise an online training schedule that must be completed by both trainee and mentor at set intervals that will be ‘date stamped’. Failure to complete on time will invalidate the training procedure.
Consider this advice from ex-trainees:

Line up work experience and work like you’ve never worked before while there. With so many candidates of similar calibre on paper being churned out by various colleges, first-hand knowledge of an applicant’s ability (or lack of) is often the critical difference between getting the job and missing out.

Get work experience, get your qualifications and apply for every job going. Stick to real journalism – never let PR people tell you what they do is journalism!

It’s all about experience. I did work experience at a newspaper and with the help of the deputy news editor, I learned more in two weeks than I learned in four years at uni. He taught me how to actually structure a news story properly!

Recommendation 2.

Regularise work experience, with a formal contract between employee and trainee, and make a minimum period compulsory before a job offer is made.

This chapter has offered some explanation as to why so many trainees become disillusioned and leave, but there is also a much simpler answer: They were wrong people for the job in the first place.

The journalism industry needs to wake up and stop fooling itself that the brightest and best young people are queuing up to enter journalism. They are not. The lack of a defined career path, uncertainty over the future and direction of journalism and better offers from other creative industries mean journalism is not the first choice of career. The explosion of self-publishing, social media and ‘citizen journalism’ means that the professionalisation of journalism via membership of a professional body or even licensing is unworkable, and maybe even undesirable.

Recommendation 3.

A unified campaign backed by proprietors, industry bodies like the Newspaper Society and the Society of Editors, educators and training organisations to ‘sell’ journalism as a rewarding and viable career to the genuine brightest and best.

Note on the author

Alan Geere is a journalist, academic and editorial consultant. He was editorial director of Northcliffe Newspapers South-East and, as editor, led the Essex Chronicle to two successive Weekly Newspaper of the Year awards. As an editorial executive, he worked in the UK, Canada, United States and the Caribbean and his consulting career has taken him into 200 newsrooms worldwide. He was head of the Media, Communications and Journalism undergraduate degree course at Victoria University in Kampala, Uganda, and taught journalism at City, Westminster and Worcester Universities. He was also a member of the board of the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ).

  • WHAT DO WE MEAN BY LOCAL? THE RISE,FALL AND RISE AGAIN OF LOCAL JOURNALISM. EDITED BY JOHN MAIR,RICHARD LANCE KEEBLE WITH NEIL FOWLER. PUBLISHED BY ABRAMIS BURY ST EDMUNDS SEPTEMBER IST 2013 ISBN 978-1-84549-593-0 PRICE £19.95 WITH A SPECIAL OFFER TO YOUR READERS OF £15.00 from richard@arimapublishing.co.uk

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  • August 14, 2013 at 11:37 am
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    “A trade magazine would often prefer an expert in the topic who appears to be able to write, rather than a trained journalist.”

    Though that does happen, in my experience it’s quite rare. The majority of journalists on B2B magazines are just that, journalists – often with regional press backgrounds.

    “Experts who can write” crop up as columnists, of course, and occasionally as specialist correspondents on staff with larger publications, but rarely in the main reporting, subbing and management functions.

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  • August 14, 2013 at 2:48 pm
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    If any youngster asked me for advice on possibly going into journalism, I’d warn them strongly that they may end up disillusioned and stretched after a year or two. Bit like saying they’d like to be an actor or model. Sad but true?

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