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Journalist retention – be proactive

After you’ve gone to the effort of recruiting a good journalist, it’s worth putting in the effort to keep them. Making them feel valued is a key part of that, says Peter Sands.

By Peter Sands

Journalist retention – be proactive
Show them you care…

You don’t need to be a recruitment expert to know that the tightest labour market in living memory is having a huge impact on our lives. Health and social care is facing the ‘greatest workforce crisis in history’ with hospitals in England short of 12,000 doctors and more than 50,000 nurses. Pubs and restaurants have a record 176,000 job vacancies. And everyone is all-too familiar with the mayhem at airports. This summer, there was a record 1.29 million job vacancies across all sectors of the UK economy. It is worse in America where they are going through the ‘Great Resignation’ with 10 million jobs waiting to be filled.

So what about the newsroom? Has it escaped unscathed from the staff shortage chaos? After all, working in the media is the dream job – telling stories in your mother tongue, meeting interesting characters and having your name published daily. Once I realised, at the age of 16, that I was never going to play centre forward for Newcastle United, there was no other job for me. Several decades later and I am still enjoying every minute. Surely the media has had no problem recruiting and retaining good people. I asked some senior players across the media and all said that, while there was no crisis, there had been subtle changes since the pandemic.

Changing landscape

After a year of working from home, people are reassessing their lifestyles. The cost of living crisis has made some, particularly in the regions, question whether they can afford to live in London – or even if they want to.

Twenty-four hour news operations also mean that the shifts can be unappealing. I interview youngsters who inevitably say that working weekends and nights will be no problem but who, six months on, are frustrated that their friends have given up even bothering to tell them when they are going out.

Then there is the commuting. After working from their bedrooms, the two-hour round-trip, especially in rail strikes and heatwaves, can be a real disincentive. And whereas being in a newsroom is regarded as crucial for trainees who learn so much from their colleagues, there is a reluctance by some senior staff to give up the WFH culture. In the UK, workers are still spending five times as many hours working from home than they were pre-Covid. When I told one applicant that he would need to come into the office each day, he was taken aback. Was there any chance of a compromise, he asked. “Maybe come in once a week?”

Senior staff have also been reassessing their lot. David Powles, editor of the Eastern Daily Press based in Norwich, says: “We don't normally struggle with entry level reporters, trainees and those out of uni – however those with qualifications either seem to not want to move – or leave the industry to go into PR etc. That’s an issue the industry as a whole needs to challenge through better wages for what remains a great job to do.

“We’re challenged with our location, but we’ve had some amazing opportunities up for grabs of late – investigations editor, specialist roles, business editor – and the level of candidates has been really disappointing. They’re jobs I would have moved anywhere for when I was a reporter trying to break through - people perhaps just aren’t as ambitious now?”

There are certainly more newsroom vacancies, more passing ships for your staff to jump on to. Opportunities abound for senior roles, often jobs with preferable hours and those who switch employers sometimes get a big pay rise – in the US, an average of 9.7 per cent. Then there is the cost of childcare which, in some areas, is colossal. Working around the clock in the newsroom with most of your salary going to the childminder has led some journalists to quit, change jobs, go part-time or to freelance.

The staff shortages may not be the crisis for newspapers that they are for other industries but the slight shift is a good reason for editorial managers to reassess their approach to recruitment and, crucially, retention. Recruitment is one of the most important things we do. Like a football coach you are only as good as the people around you. So here are some tips on finding and keeping the right team:

1. Use different routes to get your vacancies out there.

Hold the Front Page, Journo Resources, LinkedIn and, of course, InPublishing are effective. But you can also use your knowledge of the industry and your contacts to find those who are the ideal fit. Draw up a list of the qualities you want and create a detailed job description. Ask the key questions. What do you really want them to do each day? How diverse is your newsroom – does it reflect the readership? Do we want the newsroom to be full of academics? Is every job in the newsroom a profession or do we need a return to basic crafts? I have always said that journalism is 35 per cent skill (writing stories in your own language is not rocket science) and 65 per cent attitude. Recently a senior editor on a national newspaper told me I was wrong. “It’s 20/80,” he said assuredly. You want energetic enthusiasts who are not going to sit on their hands and moan about the hours or their colleagues. You also need to identify the stayers. I see lots of very bright, academically brilliant high-flyers who are fast-tracking themselves to the top. After a year of so of reporting, they will be itching to move on. And if you don’t have a role for them, the chances are they will be gone.

2. Are your salary rates really competitive?

Money may not be the prime motivator for most journalists but it can be the prime demotivator if your staff feel seriously under-valued. Do you know what your competitors are offering? Graduate salaries have increased at a record rate this year, with some employers raising pay by up to 20 per cent. A report by the Institute of Student Employers in August found that graduate salaries are up by 7 per cent on average – the sharpest rise in 20 years.

3. Retention of good people is as important as recruitment.

Having spent all that time and money on finding the right person, you want them to stay and to make a difference. One of my earliest management lessons was that everyone wears an invisible badge that says, “Don’t Forget Me – I’m Important”. It is worth remembering even, or especially, when you are busting a gut to hit the deadlines. Newly qualified senior staff often tell me that the last conversation they had about them and their careers was at the initial interview. One said: “When I handed my notice in, nobody seemed to care. They did not try to make me change my mind. I felt the work I had done wasn’t valued.” Newspaper offices are busier than ever but giving people the opportunity to sit down for a one-to-one with the boss and talk about themselves is one of the most powerful things you can do. Set clear standards and give feedback. Staff are happier if they have parameters. Good quality training also sends a message that you are investing in your people. How is the career progression at your title? Most journalists zig-zag around the industry. I know I did. Good people are ambitious. If there are no opportunities to progress, no succession plan, then you are guaranteed a high churn.

The one thing that the pandemic brought home is that newspapers and websites can be produced remotely. It was a triumph. I wrote about this in InPublishing last year.

The creativity and buzz of the newsroom is essential but for some senior people, with years of newsroom experience, having to go into the office could be the deal-breaker.

Recruitment in newspapers is showing different patterns – just as whole editorial operations have changed post-Covid. But it is nowhere near the scale of other industries. There is still huge enthusiasm to get in the newsroom.

Doug Wills, editor emeritus of the Evening Standard and the Independent, recognises there has been changes but that flexibility and high standards mean there has been no real problem in attracting staff. He says: “On news, the competition for talented young writers is certainly keener with an increase in demand with the expansion of 24-hour operations. Youngsters still want to get into journalism. There’s still a need and a willingness to come into the office, but there has been a change in the mind-set of everyone towards flexible working, particularly if it involves unsocial hours. The over-riding factor is a commitment to really good and healthy flexible working patterns, with everyone enjoying a combination of working from home and in the office. We think we do this at the Evening Standard and the Independent, and budding journalists know this. That’s why they are still keen to join us.

“Many sports journalists and news reporters have always worked anti-social flexible hours operating out of the office, and the fast-pace of change in technology has made this more attractive and efficient. But there has not been any reluctance to come into the office when the need arises.”

Journalism is a hugely attractive career. There have been post-pandemic frustrations for some publishers – high churn, staff reassessing their lifestyles, a reluctance to move to expensive areas – but in the great scheme of things, newspapers, unlike hospitality and health, have remained largely unscathed. That doesn’t mean though, that a review of recruitment and staff retention is not overdue.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list to receive the magazine, please register here.