What to do when your industry gets turned on its head

If the bleakest statistics are to be believed, the UK alone saw 33 per cent of all journalistic jobs disappear in the first decade of the new millennium, with 6,000 positions axed in the last 12 months. The era of free-to-read has not been kind on the industry, forcing many people like me to think pragmatically about where next month’s budget is coming from...

The result is what you might call disruption. Disruption to the industry, to other industries, and the way in which stories are told and information disseminated.

Facebook users working in the creative sector may be familiar with a group simply entitled Stop Working For Free. As the name suggests, this is basically a place for people to post complaints and warnings, and ask for advice, about the most common pressure experienced by those who can write, draw, illustrate, code, design, act or sing. Everybody, it would seem, wants something for nothing.

Not so long ago I saw an advert on a website for a presenter role for a film premiere taking place in London. It was unpaid. Most internships within the creative sector are similarly rewarded, and some can last for well over a year. Some recruitment websites may not encourage low paying jobs, but they facilitate a culture of underbidding to secure contracts.

This begs the question - what exactly can people do if they want a genuinely profitable creative career as a freelance?

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The answer can be found in diversification, and the process of doing this begins with truly understanding exactly what you are good at. From the perspective of the newspaper or magazine hack for hire, this would be storytelling, research, and an objective, inquisitive approach to investigating stories. For a designer it might be the ability to visualise a brand personality or corporate culture in beautiful work.

The award-winning South African writer Lidudumalingani explained in an article earlier this year just how bad the situation has gotten for scribes on the world’s second largest continent. With publishers largely uninterested (and unable) to support new writers financially, most aspiring names have completely separate careers, with one particularly interesting model emerging from doctors with a penchant and skill for penning words. Saraba, in Nigeria, is a springboard publication for creative writing talent run by medical students and represents a new wave of digital literary magazines in Africa that have established themselves as a vital platform, born out of necessity and a need to disrupt the status quo.

Read: The value of adopting a side-hustle mindset

None of which would have been possible without technology and the internet. But technology is not just acting as a catalyst for major disruption, either, it’s the ultimate disruptor in itself. SingularityHub ran a great piece on industries that have been disrupted by tech firms expanding into logical but nevertheless new markets. These included mobile networks (Facebook vs SMS Messaging), take away deliveries (Uber Eats), and recruitment (LinkedIn). Another example is communication, and this brings us back to the journalist’s predicament.

I’ve worked in the British press for decades, at both a national and regional level, print and online. It is now almost impossible for a freelance to purely focus on editorial only and guarantee their rent or mortgage payments for the entire year, because of the level of disruption that has taken place. Google News can curate and, in some instances, even draft basic copy for people to consume within the search page itself. Facebook has a similar deal whereby it’s possible to consume entire articles from external sites within the network. Websites, on the whole, cannot charge for access to articles.

These are just three examples whereby the old purchasing, and therefore payment model, has been dismantled, if not destroyed. The result is less money to be spent on funding professional endeavours, more demands to work for peanuts, or, worse still, free. So, what do you do?

From running corporate blogs and ghost writing, to copywriting for business clients, fixing (the task of putting people in touch with experts), social media writing, account management, and penning biographies, the list of roles journalists are especially suited to is long and varied. It’s also dominated by jobs that, up until a year or so ago, largely fell to public relations, marketing, and technical pros. This has now been disrupted by an influx of highly experienced editorial types.

Read: Meet the start-up disrupting the way people change careers

With so much competition out there in terms of reader attention, and with those readers also consumers and potential new business leads, it makes sense that firms and agencies are looking at editorial professionals to draw attention to their pages. A great copywriter could produce slick, well chosen words that convey a company message, but journalists are skilled at taking one step further, turning that into a great story, something more shareable, less sales-focussed, but still capable of leading people to a brand or product.

Journalists have been doing this for decades, writing about new launches, new itineraries and new ideas from an editorial position, which is automatically viewed as more legitimate in the eyes of the public when compared with a simple ad or brochure. With the rise of new SEO, whereby content is measured not just on relevant words, but also good writing and originality, the editorial standpoint has never been more valuable.

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The sheer number of company blogs now adopting a softly-softly approach to content marketing is proof of this. Many firms are opting to position themselves at the forefront of their industry through relevant news stories and informative articles, aimed at clients and potential customers, which still benefit the brand name without selling the brand directly. Particularly useful for B2B businesses, where the customer is also involved in the industry, sponsored content on consumer websites is another example of this, harking back to the old guard and their advertorials. 

Late in 2011, I started Richard Trenchard Communications, an editorial agency specialising in written content, working with businesses ranging from travel to entertainment and betting. Without a doubt, my business was set as a direct response to the contradictory disruptions that have impacted on journalism. But new opportunities have emerged as a result of how journalism, marketing and public relations have changed. Seizing those opportunities is the fundamental idea of disruption, regardless of what specific industries you want to reference.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 

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