Journalists thinking about precarity: Making sense of the “new normal”
By Henrik Örnebring
[Citation: Örnebring, H. (2018). Journalists thinking about precarity: Making sense of the “new normal”. #ISOJ Journal, 8(1), 109-127.]
This study analyzes the effects of precarity on thinking about professionalism and professional identity among journalists, based on a re-analysis of three different datasets of semi-structured in-depth interviews (gathered in 2008-09, 2010-12 and 2017, respectively) with journalists (n = 63, 55 and 11, respectively) across 14 European countries. The study shows that journalists in this cross-national sample are “primed” for precarity; i.e. they largely accept precarity as natural part of journalism because precarity is in line with key professional norms such as norms of entrepreneurship and meritocracy.
One of the defining features of contemporary journalistic work is that there is less of it—at least if you want to be paid. The journalism labor market has long relied on an oversupply of workers eager to enter the profession, but the mass layoffs of the recent decade—particularly in the daily newspaper sector—has made the current situation extreme. This insecurity is felt across journalists’ careers: from j-school graduates desperately hustling to get their first job, through mid-career journalists having to cope with editorial office closures, to late-career reporters having to choose between retraining and early retirement (if even given the choice). In the United States and elsewhere, you cannot necessarily expect to make a living from just journalism anymore (Bakker, 2012); young, aspiring professionals in particular find that they have to supplement their income from journalism with other work. This is the “new normal” in a labor market where competition was always fierce, but where the reward usually was a full-time, permanent employment contract. As this prize is becoming ever rarer, journalists—budding and established alike—have to adjust to permanent labor insecurity. Precarity is thus a key characteristic of contemporary journalistic work.
Recent journalism scholarship has recognized this shift toward precarity in various ways, but there is still relatively little attention to how precarity influences journalists’ ways of thinking about their profession and their work. In fact, many of the key concepts and heuristics that journalists use to describe and make sense of their work (e.g. “professionalism”, “objectivity”, “democratic role”, and “verification”) are contingent on a high degree of contractual stability. A (semi)coherent professional identity and shared professional norms can only emerge if practitioners in general enjoy significant employment security and autonomy within resource-rich organizations (for arguments along these lines, see Brennen, 2008; Donsbach, 2010; Örnebring, 2007; Schudson, 1978).
“Ways of thinking” include many different aspects of how journalists think about their work and the many different concepts used to do this thinking. Without any pretense to completeness, this study will focus on professional norms, identity and mythology as aspects of journalists’ ways of thinking. Other concepts could be used (e.g. “values”, “rules”) but norms, identity and mythology are often treated as interrelated in the literature, particularly when it comes to professionalism (e.g. Aldridge, 1998; Aldridge & Evetts, 2003; Deuze, 2005; Van Zoonen, 1998) and as such there is theoretical precedent for choosing these three particular building blocks for the overarching concept of ways of thinking.
These components of journalists’ ways of thinking about the profession emerged in a context of (largely) stable employment in stable organizations. The basic research question of this article is thus: what will happen to journalists’ ways of thinking—particularly how they think of themselves as professionals—when the structural condition of stable full-time employment (a key factor in creating and maintaining these ways of thinking) no longer exists? Additionally, how do ongoing processes of digitalization and technological innovation of journalistic work contribute to precarity as a pattern of thought and feeling? These questions will be answered by re-examining three different datasets, all based on semi-structured in-depth interviews gathered in the period of 2008-2017 across 14 European countries.
Precarity in Journalism and Elsewhere
In the most general terms, precarious work is “…employment that is uncertain, unpredictable, and risky from the point of view of the worker” (Kalleberg, 2009, p. 2). Continuing to precarity, Kalleberg writes:
Employment precarity results when people lose their jobs or fear losing their jobs, when they lack alternative employment opportunities in the labor market, and when workers experience diminished opportunities to obtain and maintain particular skills. (2009, p. 2)
Precarity is thus about not only the formal arrangements of employment (and unemployment) but also about how living under these conditions makes you think and feel. Hardt and Negri (2009) define precarity as “….organizing all forms of labor according to the infinite modalities of market flexibility,” and further, “… precarity is a mechanism of control that determines the temporality of workers, destroying the division between work time and nonwork time, requiring workers not to work all the time but to be constantly available to work” (Hardt & Negri, 2009, p. 146). In recent scholarship on the cultural/creative industries, of which journalism is a part, the term has come to more generally signify the “… existential, financial and social insecurity exacerbated by the flexibilization of labor markets” (de Peuter, 2011, p. 419). Precarity is thus a very suitable concept for studying “ways of thinking,” as it captures not just practices and structures but also the underlying thoughts and feelings of individuals working under precarious conditions.
Analysts of precarity point out that employment insecurity is not a new phenomenon: “… it has existed since the launch of paid employment as a primary source of sustenance” (Kalleberg, 2009, p. 2). What is “new” is essentially that precarity has upset the industrial, Fordist class structure so that insecurity now affects many occupational categories that were previously exempt from it. The security afforded by what is sometimes called the “standard employment relationship” (i.e. full-time, permanent employment, with benefits like social insurance and paid holidays) was primarily available to “… a relatively privileged group of disproportionately White, male workers in the global North” (de Peuter, 2011, p. 419, following Neilson & Rossiter, 2008). Journalism definitely falls into this privileged category.
Sociological works using the specific concept of precarity deal primarily with macro-level, structural changes (e.g. Hardt & Negri, 2009; Neilson & Rossiter, 2008; Standing 2011). Standing postulates that precarity has created a new class structure consisting of five groups (the following summary is based on Standing, 2011, pp. 8-9): the elite (the ultra-rich); the salariat (those still in permanent, full-time employment), “… concentrated in the large corporations, government agencies, and public administration, including the civil service”; the proficians (a neologism combining the words “professional” and “technician”), who have the skills and resources to voluntarily choose a life of non-permanent contract work and high mobility; the shrinking working class (those still engaged in the manufacturing/industrial sector, the “model workers” of the welfare state); and finally the precariat, the growing class of people who has no option but to live their lives under a regime of permanent employment insecurity.
Following Gynnild’s early work on freelance journalism, we could describe contemporary journalism as consisting of a large but shrinking salariat, a few proficians (the “star” freelancers of Gynnild’s central “winner-takes-all” metaphor; 2005) and an ever-growing precariat. This new class structure has, in Standing’s analysis, dire consequences for any notion of professionalism, and therefore by extension for how professionals-turned-precariat can think about their work:
Once jobs become flexible and instrumental, with wages insufficient for socially respectable subsistence and a dignifying lifestyle, there is no “professionalism” that goes with belonging to a community with standards, ethical codes and mutual respect among its members based on competence and respect for long-established rules of behavior. Those in the precariat cannot be professionalised because they cannot specialise and they cannot construct a steady improvement in depth of competence and experience. (Standing, 2011, p. 26)
Hardt and Negri describe the emotional consequences and changes in thinking wrought by precarity in even starker terms:
… the control imposed by precarity takes time away, such that when you are working in a precarious situation, none of your work is your own. You can, of course, think and produce affects on demand, but only in a rote, mechanical way, limiting creativity and potential productivity. (2009, p. 147)
However, these scholars do not base their predictions of emotional and cognitive effects on the micro-level on any systematic empirical evidence from this analytical level—the specific experiences of precarious workers are treated mainly anecdotally, if at all. Another problem with the theoretically-focused literature on precarity is that it frequently ascribes a key role to technology (e.g. digital networks, mobile devices, social media) in enabling precarity as a social regime, but without any detailed analysis of how technology is actually used by employers and workers at the micro-level. Neilson and Rossiter write about the important role of “border technologies” in locking migrants into a pattern of precarious work as well as “the corporate absorption of new digital social networking technologies” as a consequence of the Web industry boom-and-bust of the early 2000s (2005, 2008, p. 59) without offering any specific empirical analysis of how—in terms of practices and affordances—the assumed causal link between technology and increased precarity actually works. Similarily, Standing’s influential work also mentions the role of technology in enabling “the tertiary workplace” (i.e. when work is conducted in a place that is neither the traditional workplace nor in the home, such as a café or other public place; 2011, pp. 138-9) and that “spending a vast amount of time online has become part of the precariat existence” (2011, p. 149) but again writes in general terms without any specific empirical analysis of (digital) technology practices.
In contrast to this sociological literature on precarity as a general phenomenon, research on the increased job insecurity in journalism is empirically rich and particularly quantitative data abounds. Theoretically-informed analysis is, however, sparse, and this research also by-and-large treats the role of digitalization and new technologies as a given background factor more than an object of sustained analysis on the micro level.
Journalism scholars (many of them former journalists) have also observed the increased precarity in journalism, though rarely using that particular term. Scholars have noted a rise in various forms of unpaid work in the news sector (Bakker, 2012; Compton & Benedetti, 2010) and the increasing role of contingent labor (i.e. freelancing) in the news industry (Cohen, 2012; Das, 2007; Edström & Ladendorf, 2012; Gollmitzer, 2014; Massey & Elmore, 2011; Mathisen, 2017; Obermaier & Koch, 2015; Ryan, 2009; Walters, Warren & Dobbie, 2006). There is also a rapidly-growing subfield of journalism research studying the consequences of job loss in the sector (Ekdale et al., 2015; Heinonen et al., 2017; Nel, 2010; O’Donnell et al., 2016; Reinardy, 2010, 2016; Sherwood & O’Donnell 2016; Spaulding, 2016; Usher, 2010).
So far, this research taken together has focused on charting the extent and self-reported experiences of job loss and of freelancing, as well as the consequences of job insecurity on journalistic practice. Key results range from descriptive observations of whether journalists manage to get new jobs after being laid off (Heinonen, et al. 2017; Nel, 2010; O’Donnell et al., 2016; Sherwood & O’Donnell, 2016); noting that freelance work occupies an ambivalent position between being voluntary and involuntary (Edström & Ladendorf, 2012; Massey & Elmore, 2011; Mathisen, 2017); to finding that a climate of insecurity does not appear to have any great effect on journalistic practice, at least not practices related to innovation and organizational change (Ekdale et al, 2015). Critical and more in-depth theoretical analyses are lacking, though there are exceptions. Gollmitzer’s work shows that journalists quickly internalize job insecurity and see no real options for improving their situation, like organizing collectively (2014). Cohen (2012) finds similar results in one of few analyses to draw upon the previously discussed Marxist literature on precarity.
We can thus see a division between two distinct literatures: the general literature on precarity, based in the sociology of work and inflected by (autonomist) Marxist thought, and the specific literature on job insecurity, job loss and non-traditional employment in journalism studies. The former is rich in theory but empirically speculative. Conversely, the journalism scholarship on job insecurity and job loss is empirically rich and detailed, and journalists’ own accounts of their experiences take center stage—but a deeper theoretical analysis of what these experiences mean on an institutional level is lacking. Furthermore, both of these literatures ascribe a key role to digital transformation in a general sense, but pays little attention to the concrete experiences and uses of digital technologies among workers/practitioners. There is thus an obvious gap to be filled by studies combining a critical-theoretical perspective with an empirical consideration of practitioners’ thoughts and feelings, particularly if such studies also include an analysis of how precarity and (digital) technologies are linked on the micro-level. This present study is a modest contribution in that direction.
This article reflects the author’s long-standing (about a decade long) interest in the increased precarity of journalistic work. The article does not report the findings of a single study but is built on the re-analysis of data gathered in three separate interview-based projects where the author was either lead or participating researcher. In all of the projects, precarity and working conditions have been an area of questioning, even if issues of precarity have not always been central to all projects. Re-analysis of “old” datasets is an established practice in many areas of social science, particularly when done by the original researcher (Fielding & Fielding, 2000; Heaton 2000, 2004), but are under-utilized in journalism studies—perhaps this has something to do with the relentless focus on novelty and “the future” in the field (Curran, 2010).
The analysis in this article is based on three separate datasets gathered at different times over a 10-year period (2008-2009; 2010-2012; 2017). All datasets consist of semi-structured in-depth interviews with journalists/editors and ex-journalists. The datasets are part of different projects and as such were not designed to answer a common set of research questions. However, issues of work and employment conditions in journalism have been a central feature of all projects.
The first dataset (D1) is a series of interviews conducted with journalists in six European countries (Estonia, Germany, Italy, Poland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom) in 2008-2009. The total number of respondents were 63, evenly distributed among the six countries (i.e. about 10 respondents per country). The focus was on journalists engaged in traditional “hard news” production and a key criterion for sampling was getting a balance between early-career (≤5 years in the profession), mid-career (five to 15 years) and late-career (15-plus years) journalists. The interviews were part of a project (which also included an email survey of journalists in these six countries) specifically dealing with the comparative analysis of journalistic work practices and working conditions in Europe. Therefore, issues like precarity, layoffs, entrepreneurship and employment (in)security, as well as the structural conditions of journalistic work, were an explicit theme for the interviews and most participants talked about such issues. All interviews were transcribed and hand-coded using employment conditions as the overarching category and freelancing; entrepreneurial journalism; contracts; layoffs; and specific workplace conditions. The role of technology was also a central area of concern in this project, where the overarching category of technology was hand-coded using the subcategories cross-media/cross-platform production; technology in the workplace; and technology and competences/skill. These categories were re-examined when writing this study. Results from this study have been published (Örnebring, 2016), but the focus was not on precarity and its effect on ways of thinking, so the analysis presented here is original and has not been published elsewhere.
The second dataset (D2) is a series of interviews conducted with many different categories of actors (the main ones being journalists; politicians; and political PR/communication officials) in 10 post-Communist nations, which are also European Union members (Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia). The interviews were conducted 2010-2012. The total number of respondents was 272, of which 55 were interviews with journalists/editors. Respondents were roughly evenly distributed among the 10 countries (four to seven respondents per country). These interviews were part of a larger project (Media and Democracy in Central and Eastern Europe/MDCEE; ERC Grant no. 230113) with a different focus and research questions that did not explicitly deal with journalistic work and working conditions. However, for two reasons, data on precarity and structural labor market change is still present in the material. First, at the time of the interviews, news organizations in this part of Europe were downsizing heavily due to the impact of the 2009 financial crisis. Second, the sample from each country included (at least) one representative of a journalists’ union and one representative of the main employers’ organization, where issues of working conditions, employment contracts and structural labor market change were an explicit area covered in the interviews. Again, the interviews were all transcribed and hand-coded. The categories employment conditions and digital technologies (both without subcategories) were revisited for this article. Some results of this data have been reported earlier (e.g. Örnebring, 2012; Štětka & Örnebring, 2013) but nothing specifically focusing on precarity and working conditions has been published previously.
The third and final dataset (D3) comes from an ongoing project on journalists who leave the profession (i.e. ex-journalists) in a local/regional Swedish context. This project seeks to integrate questions about working conditions and precarity with questions about the overall life situations of respondents (with a particular focus on gender and family relations). Therefore, issues of precarity and structural labor market change take center stage and is an explicit area of questioning in all interviews. This dataset is the smallest (11 respondents) as data gathering is effectively ongoing (all interviews were conducted during 2017; around 30 more interviews from across all of Sweden are planned). These interviews have been hand-coded and the primary coding categories revisited for this analysis are precarity in the workplace; precarity and family life; precarity, contracts and freelancing; and precarity and professional identity. In this study, technology/digitalization has not been used as an analytical category in its own right; rather, the main coding categories have had technology/digitalization as a subcategory (e.g. precarity and family life–technological aspects). Some preliminary results have been presented at a conference (Örnebring & Möller, 2017) but the focus there was the specific relationship between precarity, gender and the overall life situation of respondents, rather than on how journalists think about precarity in a general sense.
The disparate nature of the sample is in fact an advantage if we desire knowledge about general (cross-national, cross-media) patterns of thought. The respondents represent a broad selection of journalists, evenly divided by gender (the gender balance in all three datasets is very near 50-50), working in different media organizations (private/public, print/broadcast/online), at different career stages (early/mid/late career) and under different contractual conditions (in all datasets, there are freelancers among the respondents alongside permanently employed journalists). All datasets also include respondents from outside the capital region in their respective countries. Thus the datasets offer a broad overview of how European journalists think about precarity as a central feature of their work.
Results: Thinking About Precarity
The main research question of this article is: “What will happen to journalists’ ways of thinking—particularly how they think of themselves as professionals—when the structural condition of stable full-time employment (a key factor in creating and maintaining these ways of thinking) no longer exists?” Additionally, how do ongoing processes of digitalization and technological innovation of journalistic work contribute to precarity as a pattern of thought and feeling?
From all datasets it is clear that precarity is real. The difficulty of getting a permanent job is keenly felt, particularly by those who are at an early stage of their career (five years or less as journalists) and by those who work or have worked as freelancers. Almost all younger and freelance interviewees describe some degree of anxiety and frustration about their life in journalism. Some older professionals remember this anxiety from their early years as journalists, too. This anxiety cuts across genders and national borders. In general, employment protections are stronger in, say, Sweden and Germany than in most Eastern European countries, but Swedish and German professionals are far from immune to the mental toll of job insecurity. “Yes, I offered my topics and they either fit or they didn’t, it’s quite a hard way of life,” said one German, late-career journalist of his early freelance years (D1). “My freelance career, or whatever you call it, was very involuntary. If they had offered me a permanent job at the radio station, I would have taken it,” said a Swedish ex-journalist, now working in PR, of her decade-long journalism career without ever getting a permanent, full-time job (D3). “During the crisis [in 2009] some worked for 800 Litas [230 Euros/$250 USD per month]. They could earn that money being street traders. It’s a bad situation when you get so little money for so much hard work,” said a Lithuanian union representative with particular reference to younger journalists (D2). There can thus be no doubt that many journalists are now effectively members of the precariat in Standing’s (2011) sense, and that this is anxiety-producing.
In the following, I will explore three interrelated themes emerging from a re-analysis of the data: entrepreneurship, the meritocracy norm, and non-exclusivity. These three themes are the main expressions of precarity, and its relationship to the new digital environment.
Entrepreneurship and the Internalization of Precarity
In Hardt and Negri’s (2009) words, the problem of precarity is not that you necessarily have to work all the time but that you have to be available to work all the time. This is something that takes up the thoughts of many journalists across all three datasets, particularly among the young professionals. Any job or freelance assignment you can get becomes the means to a new end: getting another job. Many young professionals constantly have to think about how they can use their current position to build skills and to network in order to continue on to the next (insecure) job.
One early-career freelance journalist based in the United Kingdom (D1) described his current working arrangements as earning £210 ($290 USD) per week doing the listings for a “family” of six newspapers, £50 ($70 USD) per week editing the syndicated entertainment review page for the same family of newspapers, and then spending his spare time self-educating in film production and occasionally getting paid to shoot short video segments. He viewed his video work in particular as an important way to expand his network of contacts and eventually get bigger and better assignments in this area. This kind of “hustling” between a number of different short-term, per-item contracts is entirely typical of early-career journalists across all studied countries. Unpaid work is common and while some respondents are critical of it, they generally see no alternative to providing work for free at the early stage of their career:
I think it’s quite exploitative because, certainly with the work experience thing, you can end up working for months on end for no money because you’re just desperate to try and get in there, and really you think it’s better to work at the Observer for free rather than some crap magazine that no one ever reads. And certainly when I was at the Observer I wasn’t paid very much and I was only paid to work on those two magazines, the Food magazine and the Woman magazine. So I wrote for news in my spare time. Every weekend I would be writing either a channel thing or a television review. Usually I was doing something at the weekend—totally on my own time. That was never paid for. I didn’t mind that then. (D1, United Kingdom, early-career)
In the earliest dataset (2008-2009), entrepreneurial career development among young journalists was strongly linked to learning new digital production technologies. Several respondents mentioned learning digital video editing in their spare time, for example. Many also felt it necessary to learn search engine optimization techniques. Learning to work across the new digital environment was clearly seen as your own personal responsibility and a necessary response to a precarious job market:
You need to give yourself a lot of skills [The respondent here talks specifically about skills in digital multi-platform production.] so you can facilitate being able to do something. When you get those skills you then give others an opportunity to exploit those skills over and above the journalism, which is why you are in the job in the first place. But if you are not multi-skilled then someone else is. Especially at my age. (D1, United Kingdom, early-career)
When entrepreneurship becomes a response to precarity, networking and aggressively socializing also becomes essential:
Yeah, relationship building, building trust. Letting people have a drink with you, have a look at my face and generally let people get the word out about me and figuring out what I want to do and why I’m doing this and what my motivation is. … Yeah, it’s the only thing that’s working. The only thing. (D1, United Kingdom, early-career freelancer)
Some journalists also describe having to think about (and to some extent strategically plan) fallback options and/or secondary occupations that can help them keep afloat when job opportunities in journalism dry up (this is also discussed in a later section of the article):
Then two years ago they removed my post. I was opinion editor and they did away with that job. But I could switch quite smoothly to full-time academic work since I had done that before, so for me this was not so bad. I think this is very typical. Many people who are active in journalism are also active in other spheres of society. They can very quickly switch from one field to another. (D2, Estonia, late-career, union representative)
Most respondents describe this as exhausting but also a necessity—there is simply no alternative to constantly being entrepreneurial. Young professionals across Europe have readily accepted that they as individuals have to bear the risks associated with their own profession, individually manage their own careers and individually take responsibility for their own professional training and development. Running from short-term job to short-term job is not a bug but a feature of journalism (to use the programming idiom). While respondents who belong to the salariat (in Standing’s sense 2011) frequently refer to belonging to a professional collective and can describe a sense of community that extends to colleagues outside their own workplace, such references are considerably more rare among young professionals and freelancers—being in the precariat isolates you from a wider professional context. The norm of entrepreneurship—which has long existed in journalism, as expressed for example in journalists’ biographies and accounts of their own work from the early twentieth century (see for example Salcetti, 1995, pp. 56-58)—contributes to the internalization of precarity among the respondents. Job insecurity is viewed as an inescapable feature of the industry and furthermore a key part of how you as an individual organize and manage your career.
The Meritocracy Norm and the Naturalness of Precarity
Precarity is thus seen as normal, and journalists are rethinking their views of their profession accordingly. Working on spec, non-salaried internships, moving from short-term contract to short-term contract and having no spare time are all conditions that “have” to be endured in order to get a (permanent) job. This is a highly embedded pattern of thought not only due to current conditions but also because there is a strong historical heritage of labor oversupply in journalism. The professional mythology is that journalism is mobile, bohemian, insecure, highly competitive—but ultimately meritocratic. Many young professionals see it as natural that preparation for a career in journalism has to begin early:
I also knew that you have to work for it, that when you only just decide after school, hmm what should I do, maybe journalism would be a good idea, then it’s actually already too late. In my opinion you should know whether you want to do it very early on, so to make the necessary experiences, because otherwise you won’t have any experience to show for it when you apply. (D1, Germany, early-career)
Another sign of how the meritocracy norm works to naturalize precarity is that many journalists (particularly those in a position to hire other journalists) do not see their labor market as characterized by oversupply but rather undersupply—there may be many journalists but there are only a few good journalists:
It’s weird, but I think in Latvia there is a deficit of journalists. In the news department at LTV, I know it took them a couple of months to find a replacement for me, first they used a couple of students which is a weird thing for public broadcasting to do. (D2, Latvia, early-career)
Another late-career respondent is very explicit about the meritocracy norm when discussing the advantages and disadvantages of freelancing: “The disadvantage is that if you are not really good at it then it’s going to be hard to get by” (D1, Germany, late-career).
Interestingly, young professionals in the early dataset sometimes saw competence in digital technology as a kind of “meritocracy trap”, i.e. technological skills were necessary in order to land a job, but still not perceived as very highly valued in terms of prestige:
It’s a poisoned chalice becoming more skilled. … I can shoot, I can edit, I can do the online side of things, and I can look after the multimedia aspect. But quite often, because I am one of the few people who can do all of these things, I might get asked to do these things ahead of getting asked to do the journalism. (D1, United Kingdom, early-career)
This relatively low value of technological skills was also reflected in the survey study done as part of the first project, where journalists across the six countries studied uniformly placed multimedia production skills towards the bottom when asked to rate how important a list of 12 general journalistic skills were to the job (Örnebring, 2016, p. 98). So in one sense, skill in new technologies was seen as central to the meritocratic system (as something that would get you “through the door” in the first place) but at the same time as something that was not part of the further meritocratic system that would allow you to get more prestigious jobs.
Starting out your journalism career with a high level of job insecurity and then moving towards higher security is not unusual in itself (indeed it is the common pattern in many careers, not just journalism), but precarity at entry level is becoming significantly more widespread (this is also in line with other recent research). By way of contrast, note how this Polish respondent describes an institutional arrangement where he was first employed on a per-item basis with a (vague) promise of permanent employment if he did well, and then how a Swedish (ex-journalist) respondent describes the current situation:
But it was a very good school for me [learning on the job at his first place of employment] because I had to write something really well in order for someone to take it. In other words, for a long time I was given such topics, and they’d tell me that if I did it well, then they would include it in the service in order to make it more attractive. … Then they extended the contract either three months or half a year, I can’t remember. (D1, Poland, mid-career) [After that, this journalist did indeed get a permanent job with the same employer.]
It doesn’t matter how good you are or how much they like you, how much you like them. They just won’t give you a permanent contract. (D3, Sweden, mid-career, ex-journalist)
These last two contrasting examples bring up a possible counter-argument to my argument that precariousness is now a defining feature of journalism; namely, that entry into journalism has always been highly competitive due to the oversupply of labor.
However, as argued elsewhere (Örnebring, 2016, pp. 186-188), the scale and scope of precarity in journalism today is of a different and higher order of magnitude than it was for previous generations of journalists. This is particularly noticeable when older respondents talk about how they entered the profession: by responding to a classified ad and then subjected to the most cursory job interview (D1, Estonia, late-career); by coming straight to the BBC after graduating at Oxford (D1, United Kingdom, late-career); or by simply biking from your small village to the nearest town and its local editorial office to ask whether they needed someone to write village dispatches (D1, Sweden, late-career). These older respondents do not describe queues of young hopefuls battering down the doors of newspaper offices; rather, many of them describe getting a job (“job” here being a brief period of trial employment invariably followed by a permanent contract) simply by showing up.
Like entrepreneurship, meritocracy is an individualistic concept. Adhering to the meritocracy norm means young journalists can keep working under conditions of precarity for quite some time because they believe that hard work, talent and skill will eventually be rewarded with a permanent position. As one ex-journalist puts it, “When I finally left journalism, it wasn’t leaving itself that made me sad but rather I was asking ‘Why did I stay for so long under these conditions’?” (D3, Sweden, mid-career, ex-journalist).
Non-exclusivity and the Institutionalization of Precarity
Another important consequence of precarity is that for the journalistic precariat, it is rarely possible to make a living solely from journalism. Full-time, permanent employment is exclusive in the sense that the worker generally does not need to take on secondary employment in order to make ends meet. Contemporary precarious employment, by contrast, is non-exclusive. Young professionals describe a context of labor where you simply have to have some kind of fallback option:
So, after starting our own [freelance] company, we quickly realized, ‘OK, we need other part-time jobs to make this work,’ so I worked half-time as a teacher in Molkom, I worked at the University for a bit. Our working situation was really like a quilt of different assignments, bosses, salary accounts. (D3, Sweden, mid-career, ex-freelance journalist)
Moving between journalism and PR, or working simultaneously in journalism and PR as a freelancer, is common, again particularly among young and mid-career professionals:
They [e.g. many media professionals in Estonia, including the respondent herself] come to journalism from PR, from journalism people turn to PR. There you have more options. You can put yourself to the test. That’s what I’ve done with different projects. Taken part in promoting some artist, been a press officer for some concerts. I have tried this and experimented and done rather well. Would it be my life’s work, I don’t know, but it’s still media and communication. (D1, Estonia, mid-career, freelancer)[When I began working as a freelancer] the balance was like maybe 90% journalism and 10% PR. Towards the end, before I left, it was more like 70% PR and 30% journalism. More and more PR over the years. … That’s the reality of the market, above all. (D3, Sweden, mid-career, ex-freelance journalist)
Even though this experience of having to work both inside and outside journalism is more common among the younger respondents, it is not limited to them. One late-career Polish respondent, for example, describes working in finance and banking and then writing pieces of financial journalism on the side, later moving into business/financial journalism full-time, then moving back to becoming a financial analyst at a bank while still making extra money writing articles for various newspapers and weeklies (D1, Poland, late-career).
Overall, those who work in other sectors (mainly PR and other forms of media content production) in addition to journalism still think of themselves as journalists in the first instance—just journalists who happen to have to do something else in order to make a living. Earlier research on journalists who also work in PR has shown that “moonlighting” in PR is not seen as ethically desirable by those who do it and that it in fact causes additional job-related stress (Frölich, Koch & Obermaier, 2013; Obermaier & Koch, 2015), perhaps precisely because this category of workers see themselves as journalists first and foremost. Among the respondents, those who were working across sectors at the time of the interview did not express any explicit feelings of stress, guilt or self-recrimination but rather accepted the non-exclusivity of journalistic work as an inevitable feature, one that they hoped would disappear as they progressed in their careers. For those respondents who left journalism, the non-exclusivity of journalism was in fact a big reason for leaving the occupation entirely. If you cannot work in journalism full-time, it is better not to work in journalism at all.
This study thus supports the findings of Obermaier & Koch (2015) and others: having to split your career between journalism and other work—PR work in particular—has a stressful effect and erodes professional identity. However, this study observes a slight difference between on the one hand more experienced professionals (who also may have left journalism) and on the other younger workers at entry level. Younger workers do not see it as problematic to work across sectors. Furthermore, for many young professionals, working in the media sector in general may be the professional goal rather than working in journalism specifically. This is likely in part because professional identity in younger workers is not yet fully formed, whereas more experienced workers have a professional identity that they can perceive as compromised.
Thus both employers and employees to varying extents expect journalistic work to be conducted for no or very little pay. Journalism becomes a kind of luxury hobby that you need to support through other work (or possibly through being independently wealthy), the micro-level of individual work thus mirroring the macro-level issues of funding journalism as an institution.
Primed for Precarity
Journalists make sense of precarity using a set of long-established professional norms that are fundamentally individualistic in nature. It is also important that these norms are long-established, i.e. they have historical roots and are transmitted both through education and professional socialization. The historical weight and the individualism of these norms “prime” journalists to accept precarity as an unavoidable feature of journalistic work (particularly at entry level). This priming cuts across national borders and career stages; even though it is stronger among young professionals. More experienced professionals can remember a time when precarity was not the norm and thus have more scope for comparison and reflection.
The most noticeable cross-national difference in this regard is the one between on the one hand countries where general employment conditions and labor laws have been strong for a long period of time (e.g. Sweden, Germany, Italy) and on the other hand countries where employment—particularly in journalism—was always more precarious and permanent employment rare to begin with (e.g. Eastern Europe). Journalism in post-Communist Europe never fully consolidated as an industry after 1991, and thus journalists there have an expectation that their work will be precarious and that employment will not be stable. Following Standing’s (2011) model, many Eastern European journalists interviewed already see themselves as part of the precariat, whereas Western European journalists (particularly those from countries with strong employment protections) see precarious work as much more of a threat and consider journalism to be fundamentally part of the salariat. The United Kingdom is in this regard much more similar to Eastern Europe (in that journalists expect and therefore prepare for precarity to a greater extent), likely due to the aforementioned wave of labor deregulation in the British media industry in the 1980s and 1990s.
The re-analysis of datasets gathered across a 10-year period also allows for tracing changes over time. In 2008-2009, respondents saw elements of precarity (notably the individualized responsibility for employability and career development) as clearly linked to digitalization and the technological innovation of the journalistic workplace. Young respondents saw a pressure to learn new technologies in order to be employable, and established professionals also saw developing technological skills as necessary in order to keep their jobs. Digitalization clearly added an element of stress and mental discomfort to many journalists’ lives (also noted in earlier studies, e.g. Singer, 2004). In 2017, on the other hand, journalists were working in a digital environment as a matter of course, and none of the respondents in this sample really saw technological change and new skill demands as contributing to precarity. Some respondents had even found that the digital skills they acquired as journalists were sought after by other employers and thus enabled them to leave their precarious existence.
Since journalistic professionalism is not only about adhering to particular norms and/or ethical standards but also about being able to “do the job” (Aldridge & Evetts, 2003), journalistic professionalism appears to work against itself in relation to precarity. The young respondents of this study rarely think of their situation in terms of belonging to a professional collective with which they may feel solidarity and where colleagues may feel solidarity with them. Rather, they keenly feel that they have to suffer through precarity in order to become a part of this professional collective. Precarity becomes a rite of initiation. Journalistic professionalism contributes to the individualization of precarity and prevents the emergence of a sense of professional community. The belief in meritocracy engenders a habit of thought where acquiring new digital skill sets and adopting to a technologized workplace simply is part of being able to “do the job”. One aspect of professionalism thus contradicts another.
As in Cohen’s (2012) and Gollmitzer’s (2014) studies, it is almost physically impossible for journalists in a state of precarity to frame their problems as collective problems. The “habit of thought” to see precarity as a matter of individual responsibility prevents collective solutions. The individualized professional mythology of journalists has deep roots—consider, for example, how rarely journalists go on strike. When the printing profession was restructured with the coming of digital publishing in the 1980s, there was large-scale, wide-ranging industrial action in many European countries, not least the United Kingdom (e.g. Gall, 1998). When journalism is faced with savage staff cuts and an expansion of precarity that is rapid, wholesale and transnational, journalists have not as a rule attempted to organize collectively to resist these changes.
Thus, while professionalism among journalists is normally seen as a strong normative good, it is also obvious that some aspects of journalistic professionalism are not positive for the professional collective—but highly useful for employers. In this moment of precarity, there is an urgent need for journalists to critically examine their own notions of professionalism, lest the more destructive aspects of professionalism overwhelm the positive ones.
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Henrik Örnebring is professor of Media and Communication and director of NODE, the Ander Centre for Research on News and Opinion in the Digital Era, at Karlstad University, Sweden. He has published extensively on comparative journalism studies, journalistic work, media convergence and the history of journalism in journals such as Journalism, Journalism Studies, Journalism Practice, International Journal of Press/Politics and Communication Theory. His most recent book is Newsworkers: Comparing Journalists in Six European Countries (Bloomsbury, 2016). He is the Editor-in-Chief of the forthcoming Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Journalism Studies (Oxford University Press, 2019). He is also (2016-18) the Chair of the ICA Journalism Studies Division.