BACKBONE OF DEMOCRACY?: If journalism still has a role to play in a healthy local democracy – why are journalists undervalued? Image courtesy


By Erin Kavanagh-Hall

On my first day at journalism school, our head tutor – a benevolent despot with a lilt to rival James Earl Jones – asked a question of the class: What do journalists actually do?

He wrote each answer up on the whiteboard. Inform. Educate. Entertain. Provide answers in times of crisis. Hold the powerful to account. Contribute to a knowledgeable, well-rounded and informed public.

All good answers, said he. But there was one we missed. He whipped out his marker and wrote, “Fill the spaces between the ads.”

Surely not, we chorused. Tutor shrugged, and said, “Media is a business. To some employers, that is your sole purpose – the advertisements make the money, your stories are there to plug in the gaps. You’ll be fighting that most of your career.”

I was reminded of that day when a friend shared an online advertising “lift-out” recently printed in a nearby publication – highlighting said publication’s products and staff. A page was devoted to each team (two pages for sales), with a photo and introductory blurb for each commercial manager and advertising sales rep.

On the page for the editorial team, there was a pic of and spiel from the editor. He went on to introduce his reporters – their name, and the round they covered. That was it.

Unlike the sales crew, who were granted a beaming colour headshot and space to list not only their job description, but working history, family life and passions outside of work, those behind the news were reduced to a couple of black and white sentences. The editor of the associated community newspaper didn’t even get that – squished in at the very end, sharing an already-cramped space with the sports reporter.

I know several of those journalists – and I know how hard they work. They provide a service to the community. If you take pride in every facet of your product, and in the community you represent, why not also advertise the people behind the bylines – who have twins, have just bought their first home, studied in Australia, have been close to four decades in the business?

But, I guess if your journalists are there to “fill the space between the ads”, one sentence is the best they can expect, right?

BIG BUCKS: Newspapers adverts, like this adorable one from 1964, are a major income earner - but at what cost? IMAGE:

BIG BUCKS: Newspapers adverts, like this adorable one from 1964, are a major income earner – but at what cost? Image courtesy

I get it; ads pay for stuff. It’s a truth universally acknowledged that advertising makes a big chunk of change, and thus keeps media organisations afloat. As UK writer Francis Williams once put it, the daily press “would never have come into existence as a force in public and social life if it had not been for the need of men of commerce to advertise. Only through the growth of advertising did the press achieve independence”.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You want to affect social change, you need a place to do it, and that place needs to pay the bills. Problem is, in a capitalist landscape, affecting social change doesn’t bring in the dough – thus, journalism is vastly underrated.

Journalism is a tough gig. The deadlines, the long hours, the bosses who can be…well, let’s just say that, in some newsrooms, the Perry White stereotype exists for a reason. Plus, journalism can take you places where angels fear to tread. The roadside after a car crash where bodies are still lying in the gutter, looking into the eyes of a child rapist across a courtroom, to the edge of a protest march where, in some instances, they risk arrest or assault by authorities. Not to mention right into the heart of disaster zones. One of the most iconic photographs to have emerged from the 2011 Christchurch earthquake was that of Olivia Carville, the young Christchurch Press reporter assigned to cover the unfolding tragedy, comforting a survivor with a bloodied face after she emerged from the rubble.

And yet, worldwide, journalists’ wages remain pitifully low (an average of about $45,000 a year in New Zealand – that is, after several years of slogging it up the ladder). Particularly rude, considering journalism cadetships (on-the-job training) are now a thing of the past – and costly higher education is now required for anyone wanting as much as a job interview.

US journalist and PR expert Simon Owens wrote that, in the current business model where advertising brings in the bulk of the income, it becomes easier for the bigwigs to justify paying the journos so little.

“It can be argued that the journalism forms the very backbone of a media company, and the business side would be unable to generate revenue without the editorial staff,” he said.

“But the current set-up allows the journalists to be viewed as little more than factory workers, assembling content against which their business counterparts can sell ads.”

Owens also argued that journalists are less likely to question their pay because editorial teams are often kept in the dark when it comes to a newspaper’s revenue, business processes and advertising. Those working in public relations and marketing are much more connected to the business side of the firm. They can discern their worth to a company by how much revenue they are responsible for, and charge accordingly. Journalists don’t have the same luxury – and, if you don’t question your place on the game board, how can you ask for something better?

Sadly, the public’s response to journalism also influences how it’s treated in a world obsessed with profit margins and ringing tills. Media commentators and experts assert that, particularly with the rise of the Big Bad Web, journalism is often perceived as “free” and therefore inherently undervalued. As Australian commentator Matt Cox put it, “Joe and Jane Citizen are now willing to fork out upwards of 15 dollars for a magazine filled with ads, whilst only paying two gold coins for a newspaper filled with informed journalism.”

SCANDALOUS: Some commentators argue quality journalism has been overshadowed by clickbait online. IMAGE:

SCANDALOUS: Some commentators argue quality journalism has been overshadowed by clickbait online. Image courtesy

Along with the internet has also come “click-bait” – highly sensationalist and often less-than-accurate web content designed to pique curiosity and thus create online advertising revenue – and the rise of blogs and citizen journalism. Joe and Jane citizen can become journalists with the aid of Facebook and a smart phone – and, without moderation and careful sub-editing, not everything you’ll find is quality reading.

In its wake, says Cox, “informed, quality journalism has become an endangered species. So endangered in fact that most people don’t value it, or even recognise it when they see it. Quality journalism is simply overshadowed by the poor.”

And if the public a newspaper is meant to be serving has given up on its content…one could ask what incentive do media employers have for providing journalists better wages and working conditions? After all, it’s only space between ads, is it not?

One major symptom, I believe, of the devaluing of journalism has been the mass layoffs of reporters. I know – the internet and the recession have made things tough. But it’s a little disconcerting to realise, in the event of newspaper mergers and buyouts, the reporters are often first to be shown the door. In New Zealand, Fairfax disestablished 180 of its 700 reporter positions (almost a quarter) in 2015 alone. This year, Fairfax made redundant 70 sub-editors throughout the country, and disestablished several community newspaper editors in a move to make local news more “digitally focussed”. Additionally, in the last few years, budgets for investigative journalism have been slashed, current events programmes are disappearing, and our sole state-funded, commercial-free television channel was closed in 2012.

The rest of the world hasn’t fared much better. This year, Fairfax Australia announced its plans to cut 120 journalists’ roles, resulting in strikes and mass walkouts. As Pulitzer Prize-winning US journalist Dale Maharidge wrote in a sombre critique of modern journalism, there were 32,900 full-time journalists at 1,400 American daily newspapers in 2015 – down from 55,000 in 2007. And, more depressing yet, anecdotal information from unions indicates women and minority scribes are being jettisoned at a greater frequency.

Once again, I don’t wish to minimise the difficulties of running a profitable business in tight financial times. Nor do I claim that sales staff have an easy ride – far from it. But, when journalism is devalued as the poor country cousin next to lucrative, shiny advertising spreads, and when reporters in their hundreds are sent packing, the consequences aren’t pretty.

SAD DAY: Colorado journalists embrace after having lost their jobs in a failed buy-out in 2009. PHOTO: John Moore/Getty Images.

SAD DAY: Colorado journalists embrace after having lost their jobs in a failed buy-out in 2009. Image courtesy John Moore Getty Images.

Journalism, when done well, is crucial for a healthy democracy. It provides the information the public requires to make informed choices. It can keep those on the top tier honest – remind politicians of their unfulfilled election promises, critique councils on their yearly spending, out those businessmen lining their pockets by scamming little old ladies. Afflict the comfortable, comfort the afflicted. As Rudyard Kipling once put it – “That King over all the children of pride – the Press, the Press, the Press.”

But when commercial interests are prized higher, local democracy suffers. As UK political commentator Peter Oborne pointed out, stories have been “suppressed, removed, downplayed, boosted or discouraged in order not to offend – or, alternately to please – advertisers and/or financial institutions”. Canadian writer Dave Yin asserted, for a piece in the Huffington Post, journalism was “being murdered” by meddling from advertisers and political biases, stating several instances where journalists and editors were forced to resign following their critique of the Canadian Conservative Party – after they took over several newspaper front pages with a paid endorsement. And going back to those lay-offs: if newspapers are as dominated by older white men as Maharidge suggests, of course you’re going to get political biases.

How is the public supposed to feel empowered to vote when such critical information is being withheld? How are readers able to access quality journalism when reporters are dropping like flies and newsrooms are halved – but the glossy, full page ads keep rolling in? UK filmmaker Adam Curtis nailed it: “capitalism serves the needs of the individual, democracy the needs of the masses. The two don’t mix.”

To be honest, I don’t have any solutions. But, surely, if we’re as “committed to journalism” as newspaper CEO’s keep saying, we need to achieve some kind of balance between news and income streams. And news organisations making sure their journalists – who cramp up their wrists learning shorthand, give up their public holidays, and sometimes put their lives at risk for the public good – feel valued and appreciated is a step in the right direction.

Maybe giving your journalists a few extra column inches in your advertising supplements might be a good place to start.