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The number of working journalists across Australia increased markedly between 2007 and 2013, despite major redundancy rounds at both News Corp and Fairfax and a steep decline in the level of advertising going to legacy media players, a new study published in a peer-reviewed journal this month suggests.

Dr John Cokley, an adjunct associate professor at Griffith University, used a journalism directory to map out the employment of journalists across the Australian media in 2007. A repeat of the study using the same directory in 2013 found a 46% increase in the total editorial staff across the Australian media.

The finding is in stark contract to the dominant narrative of a declining industry. Crikey grilled Cokley about where his study, or figures, could have gone wrong, but he was adamant the research stood up.

“The journalism business is not going broke — the money, and the journalists, are just moving around,” he said. “It’s uncomfortable for old-fashioned journalists. The industry is changing. But for forward-looking people who don’t like using shorthand anymore and are happy to record, and use digital equipment, it’s a time of growth. It’s the best time in journalism I’ve seen in 35 years.”

The Margaret Gee’s Australian Media Guide, used mainly by those in the public relations industry, lists the contact details of journalists. Asked if it were possible that the guide was merely not removing those who had left the industry, Cokley said that wasn’t how it worked. The guide, which costs hundreds of dollars for a subscription, is proactively updated every quarter.

The other possibility is that many of those listed as journalists in the guide are not actually employed full time in the field but are working as volunteers in community media enterprises or as freelancers. Some may be working part time or in micro-enterprises they hope to turn into sustainable employment. Cokley acknowledges this as a possible limitation of the data in the research paper.

But most of the growth in journalistic enterprises isn’t in these areas but in mid-sized newsrooms, defined by the study as those with 10 journalists or more. Even some print publications, specifically those in the suburbs or in the country, have taken on more journalists, according to the study. The number of print journalists working at metropolitan or national papers has decreased, as has the number of journalists working in the multicultural press. There’s been a sharp decrease in the number of journalists working for magazines, trade and other specialty publications.

But journalistic jobs at television and radio stations had boomed between 2007 and 2013. In the earlier study, there were 848 editorial jobs in the broadcast sector — this study found 1284 jobs.

The study breaks down the data, in many instances by workplace, and throws up some surprising figures. The Sydney Morning Herald is listed has having gone from 117 editorial staff in 2007 to 167 in 2013. Also showing marked increases in staff numbers were the Financial Review (from 90 to 135 editorial staff), the Courier-Mail (from 83 to 136), The Daily Telegraph (from 56 to 112) and The West Australian (from 51 to 105).

The largest growth has been in digital journalists filing for online only. In 2007, there were 60 journalists listed. In 2013, there were 623. Nearly half (47%) of digital-only journalists worked in newsrooms with at least three journalists, which, the study states, makes it unlikely those publications are hobby operations with individual bloggers. There’s also been a boom in the number of online publications over the period, and in their breadth.

Cokley says the figures fit both with what he’s seeing in the journalism industry as an educator and with what’s happening in many other industries as a result of the increasingly digital economy. He refers to the “Maker’s Revolution” — a theory popularised in a book by former Wired editor Chris Anderson about how the digital economy is encouraging small-scale enterprise. While the study didn’t directly focus on this, he expects that readers are embracing the greater journalistic choices offered by the digital revolution, choosing to read and support outlets that offer greater engagement than is often the case in large-scale journalism enterprises.

As for what this means for journalism education? University journalism schools were subjected to a barrage of criticism in 2012, predominantly though not exclusively in The Australian, which argued too many journalists were being churned out by universities given the low number of jobs in the industry. In August, the Department of Education told Crikey 5202 students were studying at least one journalism subject at university this year (for comparison, the Australian Media Guide lists around 11,000 journalists, and the census in 2011 had 20,000 people in the ‘journalists and other writers’ category).

But Cokley is adamant there’s little waste going on. He says in his experience, journalism students willing to move to where the jobs are (frequently, to the country) have no difficulty finding work. “Professors have been wondering where their graduates are going. Now we know.”

“It turns out we’re not turning out enough graduates. Most of my grads go to small and medium-sized enterprises. And they don’t come looking for their money back.”

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-In-Chief of Crikey

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