In journalism we often say, it’s who you know, not what you know. Who you know can determine whether you get the scoop, the leak, or the exclusive. And it can also determine whether you get ahead in your career.
There is no longer an argument: As Reuters reaffirmed this month, newsrooms globally are more male, more able-bodied, more white, than the communities we report to and about. But there’s one more gaping hole in Australian newsrooms that’s unacceptable: socio-economic disadvantage.
Journalism has a class problem. Our newsrooms are disproportionately middle-class, and it’s dooming journalism to irrelevance.
It wasn’t always this way. For the longest time journalism was a trade. Youngsters secured an apprenticeship (cadetship) in a newsroom, and learned the craft on the job. The best journalists were respected if not always ‘respectable’; socially, journalists were rarely considered the equals of the powerful who they sought to hold to account.
In recent decades the primary path into journalism shifted from cadetships to tertiary education. It should have helped level the playing field; university is about what you know, rather than who.
So how have Australian newsrooms remained stubbornly middle-class, rather than become more representative?
As always, there’s a range of contributing factors.
The rise of j-schools has shifted journalism from being a trade (or craft) to a (white-collar) profession. Now, fee hikes have pushed journalism degrees into the most expensive tiers. The rise of internships, where graduates are expected to work for free for many months to get a foot in the door, are simply out of the reach of young adults who can’t rely on mum and dad to pay their bills.
I’ve heard from people who say they self-selected out of a journalism career even if they had the makings of talent, believing they were less likely to get a fair go, let alone get ahead. Those of us who persevered removed our schools and home addresses from our resumes; when we got journalism jobs we changed the way we spoke and dressed.
Then there is the murky practice of selecting the right ‘cultural fit’: faced with punishing deadlines and scant resources, some editors look for new hires who’ll come in and get the job done without rocking the boat. In other words, agreeable people just like themselves. Middle class breeds middle class.
Why does it matter?
Diversity in newsrooms goes to the heart of trust and relevance. Reuters say in their first external diversity report Your Voice Counts (April 2021), “As journalists, our mission is to report fairly across all societies, something we cannot do when most of our team are the same gender and come from a single socioeconomic group”.
Study after study shows media consumers are losing trust in news media, and find mainstream journalism less relevant to them. It’s not hard to see why. To an ordinary Australian, today’s journalists appear too much like the people they profess to be holding to account. Rubbing shoulders socially with the powerful undermines the principles of impartiality and objectivity. Repeated wrong calls on key polls here and abroad shows how far journalists are from the everyday lives of the many.
We lionise diversity of views in our stories, but this doesn’t go far enough. We need to prioritise diversity of experience and knowledge in the ranks of our newsrooms.
Editors need to harness the background and lived experience of all their journalists, treating it as subject matter expertise that carries background knowledge, perspectives, contacts, all of which go a long way to bridging the relevance gap.
Culture is remarkably resilient — as the truism goes, it eats strategy for breakfast. So while diversity strategies have a value, they alone won’t fix the class problem in our newsrooms. We need to fix ourselves.
But deep change will be gradual, and must start somewhere. So what if in the first instance we were to turn the situation on its head and lean in to the who-you-know system?
The Judith Neilson Institute and the Walkley Foundation are doing just this with the JNI Opportunity Fellowships.
We’re working with leading media outlets to place emerging journalists who may not have connections into newsrooms full-time for three months. We’re sticking our foot in the newsroom door and ushering emerging journos inside.
There they can meet editors and learn from senior journos and publish work. They can form contacts and connections of their own. Since resources are a barrier, we’ll pay the young journos to work.
The Opportunity Fellowships will level the playing field a little. Both the young journo and the host newsroom will be taking a chance on each other. But they’ll already have made a change simply by trying something different; it’s the only way to pursue a different outcome.
The Opportunity Fellowships are a first step, not a conclusion: JNI and Walkley Foundation can’t open the door for every emerging journalist. But we can trial a way forward that’s within reach of any viable media organisation serious about being more relevant to its audience.
It’s time to put out the welcome mat: let’s make our newsrooms more representative, more interesting, and more relevant, to secure the future of journalism.
Andrea Ho is JNI’s Director of Education. She is an experienced media executive, manager and content maker, with a career in content and broadcasting spanning decades. She was previously Head of Planning for the ABC’s Regional and Local Division, with executive responsibility for a broad portfolio including emergency broadcasting, diversity and inclusion, content collaboration, workforce development, and technology partnerships for teams in 56 locations. Most recently Andrea was the co-Founding Director of the Economic Media Centre, a start-up project of the Centre for Australian Progress. She has a deep interest in striving for media to reflect and include all Australians, and in 2016 completed a Churchill Fellowship, researching practical strategies for increasing diversity in broadcast media.