Articles - 29th January 2019

The slow, uncomfortable death of local journalism

Words by Mark Smith
Illustration by Anja Sušanj

Mark Smith writes on the changes to local journalism in the late 2000s, and how many of the previous journalists and workers have handled the transition into freelance work

There was a time when a local newspaper was as central to the life’s blood of a town as its pubs, its market, its local Post Office.

But, just as those central pillars of the community have slowly been chiselled away at by a modern world for which instant is best and slower is nowhere, the local media has found itself whittled down to a nub of its former self.

For an industry that’s always been built on headlines, the figures are eye-watering.

According to the National Union of Journalists, more than 200 local newspapers have closed since 2005, with the number of journalists halving to around 6,500, and many of those that remain are seeing their workloads have increased dramatically as a result.

As the pond has shrunk and the fish have become more and more nervous, many – either by choice or by enforced redundancy – have taken their skills to the freelance market.

David Crookes began his career as a freelance journalist, working for Amstrad Action and Amiga Format from 1993 when he was still at sixth form college. Upon graduating from university in 1999, he was hired as a reporter for a regional newspaper.

“One thing I noticed was the newsroom was bustling with staff and each of the building’s four floors were filled with people from different departments,” he said.

“I was very much the inexperienced reporter: all of the others had been there for at least five years and some for much, much longer. The quality was undoubtedly high, the circulation booming and the editor always said he hated seeing reporters sat at their desks because it meant they weren’t out on the streets gathering news.”

As time went by, David climbed the ladder and he became the deputy business editor for a spell before becoming the paper’s deputy news editor.

He kept up-to-date with technology and embraced the internet, but it was clear the industry was changing rapidly around him.

“The emphasis changed.” He added. “The paper took on greater numbers of trainees, albeit talented ones, while old hands left and the turnover of staff became ever greater. The job became more desk-bound for reporters and by the time I’d left, we’d moved to a far smaller office with perhaps just 20 percent of the numbers I’d seen at the start.”

The decline of the local media has been attributed to a number of factors, but chief among them is undoubtedly the rise of the Internet and social media. The advent of camera phones too, made it easier for readers to submit user-generated content (UGC), pictures they’d taken themselves straight to the paper. Despite the often glaring inferior quality, the cost-savings were clear for an industry seeing falling ad revenues and circulation hitting its bottom line. This meant professional photographers were some of the first casualties of the industry’s early culls.

In 2001, freelance photographer Victoria Tetley was working as a trainee accountant but had been doing a City and Guilds night course in photography at West Cheshire College for a few months when she decided to apply for a trainee photographer position at The Chester Chronicle.

According to the National Council for the Training of Journalists – the industry’s official training body – from 2000-15 the numbers of freelance journalists increased from 15,000 to 25,000, an increase of 67%.

“When I initially started my job as a trainee, there were around 17 staff covering Cheshire and North Wales for the Chronicle Series of newspapers, including a few freelancers.

“It was an enjoyable job for many years and due to the number of staff it was possible for a few of you to go into town for your lunch, knowing there would always be several people at the office to cover breaking news stories.”

After around three years or so though, Victoria said things began to change, with a new top boss at the helm and job losses on the horizon.

“By about 2006 there were only around eight photographers covering Cheshire and North Wales and we were struggling to get from one job to another. We covered between five and eight jobs a day, the number had not changed, but the difference was you might have a job in South Cheshire at noon and be expected in North Wales at 12.30, which was not possible, and so the job became increasingly stressful.”

The combination of job losses and increasing workloads led to a surge in staff pursuing freelance careers.

According to the National Council for the Training of Journalists – the industry’s official training body – from 2000-15 the numbers of freelance journalists increased from 15,000 to 25,000, an increase of 67%.

“I saw freelancing as a path to greater variety,” adds Dave.

“I was the multimedia editor by the time I left in 2013 and the realisation that I was seeing the same kinds of stories over and over meant it was time for something new.”

Since striking out alone, he has worked for BBC 5 Live as a producer on its breakfast show and written for a wide number of publications from The Independent to the Guinness Book of World Records, covering subjects as diverse as technology, science, history, gaming, sport, health and nature.

“Freelance presented a chance to try my hand across a range of publications, indulge my passions and work with lots of talented editors, each of whom have their own ways of working and opportunities for learning.”

After taking voluntary redundancy, Victoria started her own company doing PR, commercial work and portraits and, until recently, freelanced in the media.

“The best aspects of freelancing for me are the possibilities to make more money than I would have done on a newspaper. The freedom to take time off when I choose and not have to work around other people’s holidays and the excitement of running my own business in general.”

She adds: “The worst differences are not seeing your colleagues and friends on a daily basis, the banter and feeling like you’re part of a team. The other downsides are panicking when you have a quiet spell and assuming you’ll never work again. Then suddenly work picks up and it’s ridiculously busy and you have to turn down work.”

As the media continues to suffer the squeeze, freelancers working for publications too have had to adapt to stay ahead of the curve.

Dave notes: “There have been magazine closures and each one is sad. Not only because it takes away regular work for freelancers but because it impacts on the staff who work on them. But, there have also been a good number of launches and, of course, there is ample opportunity online too.

“It does mean you have to widen your scope: you can’t write solely for one or two publications. Rates have also remained largely steady for a good while now, which means you have to work that bit harder to keep up. But, generally, freelancing today is the same as it was when I started and I guess a golden rule is to never say no to anything. Editors understand the difficulties of freelance and you never know where it may lead.”

We champion the freelancers and every entrepreneur who took a leap of faith with their idea.

If this sounds like you, head over to our Virtual Office and send us your best work via an UnderPinned Portfolio. We want to hear from you!

Make your UP portfolio

Related Articles

Hear more about The Ultimate Guide to Freelancing… from someone who’s actually done it

Journalist and writer Tim Atkinson, a graduate of the Ultimate Guide to Freelancing, writes on his experience of the course and how it helped him g...

Read more
A guide to selling without the cringe

I spent the first five years of my freelance career in, ‘I’ll take anything that comes my way’ hustle mode. My schedule, bursting with work, I’d la...

Read more
How to tell if a regular client is a flight risk

Breaking up can be hard to do, and whether it’s the end of a personal relationship or a professional one – the warning signs are often there sooner...

Read more