Tag Archives: recession

Media meltdown: news from New Zealand

I asked recently how your media recession is going (and please do take part in the poll on the right, by the way).

In response, Knowledge Workers blogger Bill Bennett writes in to sketch out an alarming scenario from New Zealand. You think we’ve got it bad in the UK? Be afraid…

The media has been hit particularly hard in New Zealand. The biggest independent publisher went bust. I worked for Fairfax, the largest newspaper publisher and 550 staff were cut from a total of around 1,700 in November 2008 across Australia and New Zealand – about 5% of its workforce. They were not all journalists, but journalists were disproportionately affected.

New Zealand accounted for 160 of the total cut – which was more than 5% and nearer to 10% of the staff in that country. This was on top of other cuts earlier in the year as newspaper subbing departments were dismantled with the work being sent to remote ‘centres of excellence’ known internally as ‘sub-hubs’.

At a rough estimate, 40% of journalists have lost their jobs in the past 18 months. Today there are about 20 percent of the number of working journalists there were in 1990. Every newspaper subbing department has been closed with most of the work farmed out to backpackers who earn the minimum legal wage.

And you still want to do that journalism degree? Seriously – unless you’re just doing it for the piece of paper, think about a different line of work…


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How’s your media recession?


To mark today’s news that the recession has ended, I’m running a poll here at Freelance Unbound to see if my fellow toilers in the antheap of media feel the same way. 

The poll will be posted up on the right for a while – please do click to vote (though it would help if you do vaguely media/knowledge worker kind of work). 

The timing of all this is quite appropriate for me, as a few days ago I actually turned down a work commission for the first time in more than a year because I was too busy to do it. 

Visitors may in fact have noticed that things have been quiet here of late. That’s because I have been eye-wateringly busy doing real work – the kind with a pay cheque attached – so I haven’t had much chance to update the blog. 

That’s good news in many ways – certainly in terms of paying the bills. But it has made me wonder how the rest of the media world is doing. 

Looking back, my media recession lasted about five months, starting in about September 2008, during which a lot of regular work assignments dropped to nothing and my shift work looked threatened as the publishing house I am working for started restructuring and closing publications. This was scary.

In response, I did two things:

The hustling paid off, yes. But actually my main success came from a combination of luck and diversification. 

Right now I’m sitting in on the production desk of a financial publishing company filling in for someone who went on maternity leave a year ago. The luck part comes in because she has decided not to come back to work full-time – or even half-time – so I get to keep working and earning, which is nice. 

The diversification part comes in because the company in question runs events, and has decided to take its marketing and other design work in-house. Naturally, my production colleague and I fell on this work like wolves at lambing time.

Never mind that it’s not journalism. I don’t care, frankly (it’s why this blog is called Freelance Unbound instead of, say, Journalism Unbound). What it is, however, is an opportunity to be useful in the company. And being useful is a central pillar of freelance success, as I’ve noted elsewhere. 

In fact, my media recession has been characterised by a general switch away from what you might call journalism (writing, subbing, page layout) to a more diverse range of work (CMS production, brochure design, animated web ads). 

So what does this all mean for you? Are you struggling to keep following a more strictly defined path of journalism? Have you had to branch out into other areas and use new skills? Have you been forced to look for work in a call centre? 

I’d really like to know. Feel free to share via the comments – or add your vote to the poll on the right.


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Yahoo: the perils of economic statistics

Not sure what state the UK economy is in? Better not read the papers and newswires today, then – you’ll only get more confused.

Today saw the release of the UK’s second quarter GDP statistics. Hmm. How bad were they?

“Bad”, says Yahoo Finance, which takes its content from  news service AFP.

British economy sees record contraction

That kind of bad. 

Oh, but wait. Does that mean the second quarter GDP figures saw a record fall?

Well, the Yahoo story certainly seems to think so:

Britain’s economy shrank in the second quarter at its fastest yearly pace since records began in 1955, as the worst recession since the early 1980s tightened its grip.

Ooh. Scary.

But, hang on a moment. What does that actually mean?

How can a quarterly figure shrink at a yearly pace? That actually doesn’t make sense.

And when you look at the story more closely, it actually reveals that the decline in GDP for Q2 was 0.8% – much less than the whopping 2.4% fall we saw in the first quarter (though more than the forecasters’ prediction of 0.3%. But then, what do they know). 

It turns out that GDP had shrunk by 5.6% in the three months to the end of June, compared to the same period last year.

But actually, most of that fall happened at the end of last year, and then the gruesome first quarter of this year. The GDP statistics just released today actually show that the worst might be over for the recession. 

Things are still pretty grim. But this is like the messy emergency landing in a swamp, rather than the terrifying plunge from the sky that we had earlier in the year. And we’ll probably be in the swamp for a while, which sucks. 

UK_GDP_1955-2009This graphic from the Guardian shows that things are better this quarter than last. Though don’t be fooled into thinking the uptick on the graph means the economy has started growing again. That’s another pitfall of statistical representation. 

But it does clearly show that the worst news happened three months ago. 

What does this mean? 

Pretty much that statistics can be pressed into service for whatever editorial angle you like. In this case the angle is: we’re all doomed. Though I’m not sure why – normally that’s the cue for anti-government papers to bash Gordon Brown. That isn’t happening here I think. Maybe it just makes for a more dramatic splash. 

The more representative story – things are still bad, though getting less bad, but they’ll stay that way for ages – is both less dramatic and more depressing. Which is probably why Yahoo went for a different – and misleading – slant.

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11 key ways for journalism students to improve their employability

It’s a tough world out there in the media – what with grinding recession, a skillset that needs updating by the hour and a revenue model that’s been turned upside down by the web.

It doesn’t help that more students than ever before are being turned out by the UK’s journalism courses. That makes it even more difficult for journalism graduates to get a toehold in our industry.

So, here are 11 top tips for journalism students and graduates – and even those thinking about their UCAS application – to ensure you have the best chance to get some kind of journalism job.

It may not be the one you want – you know, the one that involves you interviewing J-Lo in a rooftop pool in LA, or drinking in Chinawhite with the F1 team. But this advice is aimed at helping open up the widest possible range of media options to journalism students, with a corresponding boost to their potential earning power.

Admittedly, this has a bias towards print and web. But a lot of the tips should be generic enough to be relevant if you want to specialise in TV or radio.

Any comments are welcome to add to the roster…


1] Don’t do your BA in Journalism

Yes – a bit of a curve ball, but it’s one I’ve talked about before. I’m a firm believer that gaining a specialism outside journalism as well as getting some journalism training has big benefits.

Reason: The more well-rounded your education and qualifications, the more desirable you are to media employers. Journalists generally create content about the wider world, not about journalism, unless you are working for the media section. So do yourself a favour and do your BA in something other than journalism. Yes, I know that if you’re a journalism graduate already, this piece of advice may be a bit late. But UCAS applicants take note. And for the rest, there’s always the Open University.

2] Get a BSc in life sciences

Are there other degrees that might work? Possibly – but science is the one that gets asked for most in job ads. 

Reason: It’s really useful to do a science degree because it opens your media career up to include things that otherwise you would be excluded from. You may have a fascination with biology, you may read popular science books about cosmology, but unless you have that piece of paper, you will simply be excluded from writing jobs and freelance subbing shifts on titles such as Nature and New Scientist and also from editorial work for scientific book publishers. Not interested in science? Fair enough – but this post is about maximising your employability. Science will do that. It will also help you gain credibility in the mainstream media.

3] Work on the student newspaper/web site/TV station/radio show

Reason: A no-brainer really. Your work will suck for at least a year or so, whatever you do – so make it suck when it doesn’t matter so much. Make all your most egregious mistakes at college and by the time you apply for a real job you might well have developed a decent style and learned some production chops. You get free access to all sorts of facilities and equipment and you’ll hopefully learn some production discipline. If you end up as editor of something, you also get to see that student journalism work can be utterly terrible – which will put you in a potential employer’s shoes and give you some valuable perspective.

4] Gain a post-graduate journalism qualification

Finally – journalism.

Reason: Unfortunately, HR box-ticking means you probably will have to have some kind of journalism certificate (though science graduates without a journalism qualification will probably find it easier to get a job in science-related journalism than a journalism graduate without a science qualification). But don’t spend three years getting it – an MA, or even a ten-week accredited course should be enough on top of your other superb skills to take you far.

5] Learn languages

I mean, as well as English. In my day the education system was against me, as I spent years learning French, of all things, in a range of different subjects, including geography and history. This has been totally useless, professionally speaking. But extra languages can be a big bonus for journalism jobs.

Reason: It will help you work abroad; it will help you work for foreign publications; it will help you with freelance assignments that involve contacting non-English speakers. Seriously, this is another no-brainer. Which ones should you learn? Think of [a] the news flashpoints in the world (so, Arabic might be worth a shot, or Russian) [b] where the jobs are (recently Dubai, so Arabic again, also German, according to the current job ads on Journalism.co.uk) and [c] what the rest of the world speaks (so Chinese and Spanish might be worth a punt).

6] Learn English


Reason: Your schooldays probably made you think correct spelling and grammar just isn’t that important. But for some people – weird old people who might employ you – it can be very important. So if you make an effort to polish your grammar and spelling it can really pay off. Top tip: Focus on apostrophes. You will gain a distinct advantage over nearly all other graduates…

7] Keep a blog (or other web site) and update it regularly

Reason: You’re a wannabe journalist. Writing is your life. So write. As I’ve said before, I can filter out 95% of all journalism students and graduates based on the fact that they just can’t be bothered to actually create content. Bonus points for making your blog nice-looking and adding plug-in-style functionality.

8] Understand the back-end of web publishing

Reason: Journalism is shading into web development and site maintenance. The more you know about this area, the more employable you’ll be. At the moment, this means being familiar with, probably, HTML/XHTML, CSS, and maybe PHP. If you have no idea what these are, take a course or, as I’m doing, plough through a heavy book until your eyes bleed. Crucially, this is not computer programming. But it is increasingly necessary for both web-layout and design. And don’t think that tools such as Dreamweaver or content management systems will allow you to work just with graphics and content. Understanding the code that lies beneath lets you troubleshoot why pages won’t load as you thought they would, and makes you indispensable around the production desk.

9] Learn to make compelling videos

Reason: If you understand the impact that YouTube and citizen journalism has had on the media, it should be obvious why video skills are vital. But while it’s important to understand all the technical side of video formats and uploading to the web, it’s also vital to make good, compelling video content. As well as learning the software you need, such as Final Cut Pro, also learn how to tell stories visually. Learn about storyboarding and planning. Understand visual language. And learn to tell compelling stories. Which is at the heart of journalism. Kind of works for audio too, but I think simple audio podcasting is on its way out (discuss).

10] Network, network, network

Reason: People give jobs to people. Never forget this. In my advice on successful freelancing on the FleetStreetBlues blog, I stressed the first key attribute for professional success was the ability to get on with people. For journalism students and graduates, This means getting to know media professionals, being friendly (though not pushy), asking about opportunities and generally trying to be helpful when you can. And you’d be surprised how willing many media folk can be to help if you approach them in the right way. Crucially though, be realistic about what, and who, you ask. There’s a lot more to say on this, so I’m going to expand on it in a later post.

11] Have a backup plan

Reason: You may not be able to land a proper reporter-style journalism job, no matter how hard you try, even if you’re pretty good. Because, as discussed, things are tough in the media world. But don’t despair. You can still work with words, pictures, audio and video in a creative way and get paid. Sometimes even more than the pittance that journalists normally get. 

How? Think laterally. Recovering Journalist Mark Potts has an excellent post here on life after journalism – but at a pinch it can equally apply to life instead of journalism. Your journalism skills – ie your creative writing, editing and research skills – can be applied in many different jobs. Closely related fields include PR and corporate writing (but brush up on your spelling and grammar).

And that’s it for today. Other suggestions (and courteous disagreements) are welcome via the comments column…


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Portfolio magazine axed


Sad news from Condé Nast as it closes Portfolio magazine

I discovered Portfolio late last year when I stumbled on a dissection of the Wall Street collapse by Liar’s Poker author Michael Lewis. It was riveting and very well written – as you would expect, I guess.

The reason for the closure seems to be plummeting ad revenues. I have no idea whether this is just because of the tanking economy, or also because the new digital world doesn’t have room for it. 

[Update: there’s a useful Valleywag piece here that lifts the lid on Portfolio‘s slide.] 

I’m not a believer in print for print’s sake – but I do think it’s a shame that high quality publications go to the wall as well as indifferent ones. 

I never bought a copy, of course – I just read it online. Which is the key problem for news and magazine publishing now.

So, yes. I guess that would make it my fault…

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Ways to survive the media recession, part 5

Part 1;   Part 2;   Part 3;   Part 4;   Part 5;

At last, the end of the journey and a handy summary

But first, Recovering Journalist Mark Potts has a very good post on Life After Journalism that is really worth reading. 

A former 20-year journalist (hmm – like me), Mark Potts is now “an entrepreneur and consultant”. That means he managed to escape the media implosion – but still uses the range of journalistic skills he’s acquired in his new career. It’s a good post with some useful advice.

So, now – your eight-point summary.

1) Assess your existing skills

Think laterally – writers can sub, designers can do production, print specialists can move online and old journalists can teach. Also think about how your skills can work in related-but-different fields, such as corporate writing.          

2) Learn new skills

Build on your existing skills using a host of free web-based information, trial period software downloads and software training sites such as Lynda.com. Focus especially on web analytics and SEO for the web. Hobby-type skills can also come in useful – such as film-making, running workshops etc.                

3) Update your CV (resumé)

Create different CV/resumes that focus on different skillsets or media sectors. That way you can tailor your pitch more specifically to different clients.

4) Draw up a plan

Be organised and keep track of all your work hustling progress, day by day. 

5) Talk to your friends

Mates look after mates, so always ask people you know in the business if they are aware of opportunities. 

6) Contact others

Keep regular tabs on a range of job pages online – and even in print. Obviously follow Guardian.co.ukJournalism.co.uk and Gorkana. It helps to use social media too. I just got Twittered by a new site called Sourcethatjob.com – it doesn’t have much in the way of journalism jobs, but it could be worth watching as it may grow. Students may be interested to see it has a few intern-type posts (ie no pay, but experience).  FleetStreetBlues has a nice post collating media job sites here.

7) Advertise yourself

Build up a presence online – blog, use Twitter, join something like LinkedIn maybe. Certainly use Facebook if you’re not an old crock like me. Think about a £50 freelance listing on Journalism.co.uk, or even join a professional media organisation such as the CiB

8) Using freelance online marketplaces 

There are pros and cons to marketplaces like People Per Hour. I discuss them in more detail here. It’s worth investigating for students I think. 

9) Should you work for free?

Sometimes – pro bono work can get you experience, exposure and contacts. Just make sure you do unpaid work for people who wouldn’t pay you anyway.

And that about wraps it up. Remember, it may seem grim, but there is work out there – you just need to dig a bit to find it. Good luck!

Part 1;   Part 2;   Part 3;   Part 4;   Part 5;

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Ways to survive the media recession, part 4

Part 1;   Part 2;   Part 3;   Part 4;   Part 5;

It’s been a bit of a marathon, but finally we’re getting to the end of the recession-busting advice. 

In the next post, I’ll put together a handy summary, so you don’t have to wade through so much copy to see the bullet points. 

First – A follow-up note on the whole business of advertising yourself.

Using freelance online marketplaces

One of the things I tried at the end of last year was to register on People Per Hour – an online marketplace for freelancers in a wide range of fields, including media-type stuff such as writing and design.

I thought it might be a good way of tapping into a wider market than I could reach through my own contacts, and also improve my ability to pitch for new work.

In brief, I found it didn’t really work for me, but it might work for you, especially, I suspect, if you’re a student or similar. I posted about this at greater length earlier, so it might be worth you checking out the pros and cons here

Should you work for free in the hope of getting paid work later on?

When I went to blather at Kingston, I got involved in a discussion with one of the students about doing unpaid writing work. Although he was only in the first year, he’d been enterprising enough to get an unpaid commission to write for a publication (I didn’t catch which one, as I arrived late into the conversation).

Should you do this? Is it exploitation? Does it undermine your fellow journalists who rely on real income from writing to pay the rent? Does it make it easier or more difficult to get paid for your work further down the line?

My take is that it’s absolutely fine to work for nothing – under certain circumstances. The key is to ask yourself what you’re getting out of your pro bono work:

  1. Experience. If you really don’t have experience (you’re a student, say), then it pays to get it. The money’s not as important as the skills and ability you develop. Make sure, however, that you get feedback on your work so you can improve. This is especially important for students, but is also valid for professionals if they are moving into a new field, for example.
  2. Exposure. This works at any stage in your career. I recently wrote a piece for the members’ magazine of the British Association of Communicators in Business (CiB), because I wanted to get some exposure to the corporate communications market. It didn’t pay any money, but it is a useful thing to point to when I’m talking to potential corporate writing clients, particularly as I have spent pretty much all of my career in business journalism, and don’t have that much corporate work to show off.
  3. Contacts. If you want to break into a particular field of writing, it’s worth trying to build up contacts in that world. There are plenty of specialist publications dealing with things such as the arts, say, or other niche areas, most of which are produced by enthusiasts using volunteer contributions. If you put some effort into contributing to these magazines and newsletters, you kill two birds with one stone – you get experience writing in a specialist field, and you also start building up a contacts book of the field’s movers and shakers. And what does a successful journalist have? A solid contacts book. This in itself has a value to potential employers, not counting the clippings you are building up. 

OK, then – there are good reasons to write (and do other media-type work) for free. But what are the downsides?

Primarily, you run the risk that doing work for nothing will actually undermine your ability to get paid work in future. Here’s how that works.

If you want to write music features for something like Uncut, for example, it may not be such a good idea to persuade the editor to give you a payment-free trial. After all, once you’ve given it away for free, why would they rush to start paying you full whack? It’s much more likely that your try-out period gets strangely extended and you end up donating far more than you had planned. And even if you do start getting paid, you may find it’s not at the full rate the “professionals” get.

I’m sure the fine Uncut doesn’t operate so shabbily, by the way (unless you know differently), and I’m sure this approach has worked for some. But logically it’s risky. It’s far better to donate your free writing to media outlets that don’t pay anyway. That means when you come to tout for paying work you have a bulging portfolio, but no track record of giving out freebies to potentially paying clients.

Also, make sure you get some kind of return from the free work. As noted before, if you’re a student wanting to write something for your portfolio and you get a friendly editor or features editor to commission it, ask them to give you advice and feedback in return. Many will be happy – or at least prepared – to do so. (If they’re not, that’s an indication to try somewhere else.)

I’ve been talking about writing, but the principle holds good for other media-type skills. 

If you want to move into web design, for example, then by all means design web sites for free – just make sure it’s not for people that might otherwise pay you. And potential magazine designers can spend many happy hours working up newsletters and leaflets for small charities to hone their InDesign chops. 

The moral? Sometimes you have to give before you can receive. Just make sure you give to the right people.

Next: the handy summary to all this verbiage.

Part 1;   Part 2;   Part 3;   Part 4;   Part 5;

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