In My Opinion: Julian Calvert: Changing face of the newsroom widening the gap between journalists and their audiences

“THE newsroom was a huge, dingy place, apparently full of huge, dingy men.”

That’s how journalist and broadcaster, Andrew Marr, describes his first day as a trainee in The Scotsman offices in the preface to his history of journalism, My Trade.

The previous year’s trainee was “a defiant woman called Melanie Reid”, news editor George Barton was like a sergeant major, and “hardly anyone there had had a university education”.

The situation was very similar in my first newsroom, the Evening Sentinel in Stoke-on-Trent in the 1980s, where the news editor’s most frequent instruction was “fetch me some fags”.

But what about now? The change is quite dramatic, according to the Journalists At Work survey, commissioned by the National Council for the Training of Journalists and published this week.

Inevitably, there is an eye-watering array of statistics – one respondent said they handled 80 stories every day – but it shows that the newsroom of today is a very different, and probably more exclusive, place.

The journalists surveyed are much more likely to have journalism qualifications from the NCTJ as well as a degree and post-graduate qualifications are common; 95 per cent of those aged 25-29 had a degree.

It isn’t surprising then that the average level of debt incurred while in education has shot up since the last such survey, ten years ago; even taking inflation into account, it has more than doubled to £15,000.

The financial problems don’t stop there, though. The vast majority of those who started their first job in the last three years had done work experience or an internship, as most of us would hope; the average length of these placements was more of a surprise – seven weeks. And 81 per cent of placements were unpaid, with 90 per cent not even reimbursing expenses.

As the report comments: “The increasing need for a postgraduate qualification, for which grants are extremely rare, and the increased use of unpaid work placements have led to a situation where would-be journalists tend to need family financial support… with the implication that young people not in these circumstances continue to be deterred from becoming journalists.”

And large proportions of those journalists surveyed in 2012 fitted that pattern – 17 per cent had parents who were managers or directors and only three per cent had parents in the lowest, unskilled occupations.

The previous NCTJ survey, in 2002, led to journalism being singled out and attacked for ‘social exclusivity’ in a report by former cabinet minister, Alan Milburn, into fair access to professional careers.

He said: “Without a single representative or regulatory body, responsibility for bringing about change… sits with organisations’ boards, senior staff, editors and human resources teams. Our sense is that current efforts are fragmented and lacking in any real vigour. Journalism, with some honourable exceptions, does not seem to take the issue of fair access seriously.”

There are indeed some honourable exceptions, such as the NCTJ’s Journalism Diversity Fund which has paid bursaries to 137 students on accredited courses since it was launched in 2006, and it might well be that different funding arrangements in Scotland mean the situation isn’t quite as bad here as it is the rest of the UK.

But with the new study also warning that ethnic minorities are ‘significantly under-represented’ in journalism and an average salary of £27,500 which has effectively fallen by ten per cent since 2002, some questions need to be asked about who we want to be writing and broadcasting our news.

Are there any bright points? Well it’s no longer just grey, dingy men, apparently – the survey is very clear that there is little evidence to suggest sex discrimination, with only slightly more males than females (52 per cent compared to 48 per cent and apparently women are just as likely as men to occupy more senior roles.

But without a concerted effort to open up our newsrooms, making sure that courses focusing on employability are accessible for everyone, the gap between journalists and their audience will just keep widening.

Julian Calvert is Media and Journalism leader at Glasgow Caledonian University, chair of the Society of Editors (Scotland) and a member of the NCTJ’s journalism board. Before joining the university, he spent 13 years as a newspaper editor on both sides of the border.