Something I’ve been mulling over recently as my final exams drew closer is the concept of ‘making it’ – getting yourself into that position where you’re ‘sorted’, so to speak, both financially and in terms of job satisfaction. Basically, the point where you’re doing a job you feel completely happy with, and are making enough money to live enjoyably. Ask any young, aspiring writer what they’d like to be doing in five years’ time, and they’d probably all say working at their dream publication, ‘living the life’, maybe with a love interest in tow if they’re lucky. And something I believe very firmly in is that if people have a dream, they shouldn’t be barred from trying to achieve it – after all, we only get one shot at life, so why should we waste it stacking shelves or putting up with nightmare customers in dead end retail/call centre jobs?
When I first decided, at eighteen, that I ‘wanted to be a journalist’, I had already been tinkering away with the idea of writing for a living for quite some time, albeit in the medium of teen fiction (think The Hunger Games but with more magic and demons). During my youth, I’d absolutely lap up novels like this, and I wanted to put my own creativity to use, to pour out everything that was swirling around in my brain and put it down on the page. The thrust of it anyway was that I had been reading and writing prodigiously pretty much throughout my time at secondary school – for me, this was more than a vague idea of what I thought might be a ‘cool’ career, it was something physical, an almost bodily urge to want to write.
As I got older, and properly ‘discovered’ my love for music, my focus shifted from wanting to be the next Stephen King to wanting to dip into that beautiful world of music writing. Every time I heard the latest Girls Aloud single or pressed play on New Order’s greatest hits again, I could feel my fingers trembling, already sensing the words they wanted to commit to the computer screen. And so obsessive young me set about plugging reviews into iTunes and Amazon – I’m not sure how many people read them, or how many people cared – all I knew was that it felt incredible.
I’ve written before about my personal route to where I am today in the piece I did for The Guardian (and I still thank my lucky stars every week that I got to write that for them), but suffice to say, I did ‘quite a lot’ of work experience during my gap year and time at university. If anything, it gave me God knows how much more confidence in myself – I barely recognise the person I was before I started doing ‘all this’. To feel like I was part of the publications I worked for, even if it was only for a week, was almost magical. Even just being in an office gave me a buzz, to be ‘doing work’ in these shiny palaces of journalism, to pretend I was an adult even if I still felt very much like a teenager at heart. If I was determined to ‘get into journalism’ before I started interning, I was about one-hundred times more determined to do so now. Even now, it’s a rare night I don’t go to sleep thinking over and over again about what I want to be doing and where I might be twelve months down the line. Maybe that sounds sad, but it’s how I feel.
Since I wrote that piece for the Guardian I’ve had a lot of young people coming to me on Twitter and asking me for advice about ‘getting into journalism’. And that’s part of the reason I wanted to write this post, to put some of my thoughts on the matter together in one place so I’d have something I could share, so they could understand what fired me up to walk this road, to make these choices in life. And I find myself telling them, above all else, that they need to make sure they do lots of work experience, and make those connections, and get a move on with networking and brushing up on social media. It’s what’s worked for me so far; and I absolutely loved all the publications I served time at, and always felt like ‘part of the team’ – but maybe I’ve just been lucky. After all, I live in London, so that’s one big worry for many aspiring writers wiped off the slate straight away. So I got to thinking about the whole culture of internships and how for some people, they might not work out so well as they have done for me. After all, it’s something of a hot topic in the press at the moment – a phrase that’s fast becoming a byword for exploitation; ‘unpaid internships’.
I’d be the first to hold my hands up and say that I’m all for unpaid internships/work experience while you’re in education. Hell, it’s what I did. Of course, in an ideal world they would be paid, but we don’t live in an ideal world. But here’s where things get tricky. There seems to be a culture now, where ‘unpaid intern’ is no longer just that, but instead it’s morphed into a whole panoply of other entry-level jobs; full time positions but without the barest hint of a salary. I logged into a job-listing site a few days ago and was shocked to find that amongst almost thirty advertised roles for entertainment writer positions, not a single one was salaried. All were explained away with that catch-all phrase of doom; ‘expenses only’, almost as if sheer human rights – the need to eat and travel – should be something you should be thankful to them for paying.
And worst of all, these weren’t for big publications. I can sort of accept the high and mighty movers and shakers of the media world offering unpaid internships – after all, the ‘pay’ is in the exposure/CV boost their name will afford you. But if some no-name ‘boutique online magazine!’ is asking for writers just to bolster their own ranks with free labour, that’s a big no-no in my eyes; as was evidenced in the awful case of Guitar Media magazine earlier this year. Oh, and just for the record, stuff like new TV series The Exclusives makes me sick to the stomach – turning a career into a televised contest, and broadcasting to the nation an image of media wannabes as TOWIE-styled buffoons. People will see this, and believe it to be an accurate representation of the industry, and what they need to do and be like, to succeed. And that’s just wrong. As many of my Twitter compatriots have said, writing seems to be one of the only jobs in the world where people almost ‘expect’ you to work for free for a significant amount of time. And increasingly over recent years, it seems to me like the way the industry is marketed to aspiring youths is as a kind of ‘game’ where you have to jump through a heap of hurdles to even have a glimmer of a hope of doing it for money. Not got your NCTJ? Not up to scratch with your shorthand? All seem to be extolled these days as the word of God if you visit traditional ‘I want to be a journalist’ careers’ advice websites. It paints a bleak picture.
So, back to the subject of ‘making it’. I think I’ve been pretty lucky with what I’ve achieved so far. And while I’m still only on the cusp of graduation, there’s still a hell of a lot more I’d like to achieve with my so called ‘career’. But beyond the obvious fact that I’d bloody love to make a living writing about what I love most in the world – music – the other reason I so badly want to ‘make it’ is because some day in the future I want to stand up there on my Twitter pedestal, or maybe go round universities and colleges and tell the next generation how this thing called ‘becoming a journalist’ goes. I want them to hear the truth of it, not a rose-tinted view offered by ‘journalism schools’ eager to make a pretty penny from all your ambitions, and not a tired sermon that ‘media is dead!’ and that you should all give up now and get ‘proper jobs’. Because dreams are important. Ambition is king. Determination is the fire that drives us ever onwards and (hopefully) upwards. I want to be the person to offer a hand of companionship and advice, to say ‘Yes, it’ll be tough, but things will be OK.’ Because I was fairly lucky (I think...), but there’s hundreds, if not thousands of young writers in my position who won’t have had the opportunities I’ve had, but who want something more for themselves than the droll refrain of jobseekers’ allowance and Jeremy Kyle re-runs.
David Cameron has talked incessantly of a new entrepreneurial United Kingdom led by its youth into an empowered age of prospect and opportunity. A Britannia that once again rules the waves. But the way things are looking at the moment, those waters are looking mighty dangerous, haunted by that terrifying shark-like entity; unemployment. ‘We can’t go on like this...’ Cameron’s party posters claimed, and it’s perhaps the only time anything he’s said has really rung true – because quite simply, we can’t. Young people need to feel safe in their search for work, for happiness, for ‘life’. And it wouldn’t take much – just something, somewhere, somehow, that is able to guarantee that if you work your hardest, and put in the time, anything is open to you. Maybe it’s a lot to hope for, but as that other great British institution has told us for so very long, every little helps.