Thursday, September 17, 2009...2:01 pm

Journalism: a trade, not a profession

Jump to Comments

Star responds to my enquiry about her media recession with an interesting viewpoint from the US. 
She says: 

I am seeing the profession of writing–and I do consider it a profession–being downgraded by digitization and outsourcing.

I’d disagree, in as much as I consider writing for the media or marketing (which is what we’re largely talking about here) a trade, rather than a profession.
What’s the difference? 
Well, you don’t (or shouldn’t) need a degree to practise a trade. Training, yes. Maybe vocational qualifications or some kind, especially if you’re operating heavy machinery or working with volatile chemicals. 
But journalism – or any kind of paid-for writing – doesn’t need even that. It certainly doesn’t need “professionalisation” in the sense of a university path towards qualification. (Especially given the poor match between what universities teach on journalism degrees and the requirements of the media industry.)
Why do many in the media talk about it as a profession? Mainly to try to shore up the crumbling walls of their career.
If you can professionalise a trade that is otherwise easy to enter, you can, with luck, stop people entering it. Following the law of supply and demand, fewer people in any line of work should mean higher pay for them. 
Unfortunately for this argument in the UK (and I assume in the US), a BA is now a de facto minimum standard of educational aspiration for non-underclass young people. 
This means a BA becomes much less useful as a professional filter. If around half your education leavers have one, it’s difficult to see how elitist it can be. And without elitism, it’s difficult to exclude new entrants to professions and so keep incomes up.
Oddly enough, journalism is seen as an easier degree option than, say, biochemistry, so that’ll push up student numbers. And it’s seen (rightly or wrongly) as a vocational degree that will be helpful in getting employment, which is why I suspect it’s taken the place of media studies as the soft degree of choice for some students.
The result? No real benefit for “professional” journalism in terms of keeping incomes up. But a massive downside in terms of student debt racked up by young people taking a journalism BA, with low prospects for a high income to compensate for it. 
Star underlines the horror of all this in her comment. She says: 

Writing is now “repurposing” (changing the words in someone else’s work to make it “original”) or else pulling 400 words out of your brain as authoritative. It’s educated typing, I guess. I saw an ad for 1000 articles–hey, a thousand bucks! Who could even type that much–that’s 5 novels’ worth.

Writing, and hence journalism, is valued less and less – by both the people who publish it and by those who consume it. Unlike plumbing, say, it’s a trade that people seem to be able to live without. 
Simply calling writing a profession won’t prevent it from being undermined and undervalued. At least calling it a trade makes it a bit easier to deal with psychologically.


  • How true. But it’s worse; even considered as a trade, journalism does badly compared with the competition. Most hacks earn less than the guys who plumb their bathroom and fix their roof. About the only tradesmen we can safely look down on are the ones who empty our bins.
    And even they’re catching up.

  • Said this for years – and it infuriates middle class types who wrongly think a trade is to be looked down upon. But the facts are plain – it’s a trade for the reasons outlined here.
    One thing though, it’s wrong to think a trade cannot have the same, or even greater, levels of skill as a profession. Look at the history of various trades just in this country for proof

  • Well journalism always used to be considered a trade – as recently as the early 1970s in the UK. By the time I signed on in 1980 it was starting to attract graduates and toffs but that was considered a recent development.

  • . . .
    Important point.
    Journos are lectured frequently to be “professional” but resist formalisation because of feared impacts on freedoms of speech.
    Such as the state limiting access to professional, registered journalists. So forth, name your trickiness.
    Perhaps by recognising journalism as a trade, focus can be taken away from uni style processes and towards the craft itself – the writing of articles that follow, ahem, professional rules?
    . . .

  • An interesting piece.

Leave a Reply