Journalism, and the media in general, is a tough old gig. Nobody is denying that. It can seem like this vast and impossible industry to break into, unless your dad’s an editor or your mum’s mate is at the BBC. Nepotism and privilege is well and truly rife. But in an industry that is 94% white and 55% male, it can be a hell of a lot harder if you’re a journalist who isn’t white or a man. And as a Muslim woman, a statistic that really hit home for me is the fact that only 0.4% of British journalists are Muslim, even though we make up 5% of the UK population. A percentage that is no doubt even lower if you looked at just Muslim women in the media.
So, yes it’s a tough industry for many of us. But we also need to recognise that there are structural barriers in place that make accessing journalism even harder for some – especially people of colour. When I first stepped into journalism a couple of years ago, it felt as though my voice was only really heard when I wrote about topics to do with my identity or personal trauma. And from speaking to other journalists of colour, I know that this is an all too common feeling.
The feeling of being pigeon-holed into specific topics, usually related to identity, is indicative of how the industry views and values people of colour. It’s as if our voices are only needed when publications want to discuss race or religion, or basically anything that a white journalist just can’t write about. But I don’t just want to write about identity or trauma. And I’m sure many others don’t want to either. Allowing people of colour into the industry, but only for specific topics or areas, is not making journalism accessible or diverse. It’s just opening the door slightly, and then pushing us into a tiny corner.
“It’s as if our voices are only needed when publications want to discuss race or religion or basically anything that a white journalist just can’t write about.”
And so, some people saw what the big publications were doing, and decided no. We’ll set up our own publication that actually platforms and values under-represented and marginalised voices. A publication where people can write and explore whatever topics they want, without being pigeon-holed or censored. It’s how Aurelia was born.
Small independent publications are doing so much work in the world of media, forging their own safe spaces. But what they don’t have is money. These are publications that don’t always have huge financial backing or rich investors, especially if the publication is centring marginalised voices. They are still hugely important and valued platforms.
Due to the lack of money and budget, small independent publications end up starting out on a volunteer-led basis. Offering writers a platform for their writing and journalism experience, but with little to no fee. As you may have seen from the recurring discourse online, this is a hot topic of debate. Now, I’m not advocating that writers work for free. Absolutely not. Everyone should be paid for their work. But what I will say is that this debate is not black and white. It’s a lot more nuanced than ‘write for free’ versus ‘don’t write for free’.
It’s also worth mentioning that smaller publications that can’t offer a fee shouldn’t be profiting off writers’ work. There’s a difference between having a small budget where nobody is being paid huge sums, including editors, and then a publication keeping their funds to themselves and exploiting writers.
“Small independent publications are doing so much work in the world of media, forging their own safe spaces, but what they don’t always have is huge budgets.”
To write for free or to not? Well, there are a whole host of different factors to take into account. A journalist may have little experience to show and is struggling to get that experience with the larger publications. A journalist may not want to, or even feels unsafe, writing a specific story for a national publication. See: the Daily Mail discourse. Or a journalist may just believe in that smaller publication, and be in a position where they’re able to write for a smaller fee. And that’s not even touching upon the varying disadvantages that people will face in journalism, and so may turn to smaller publications simply for access, comfort, or a home.
What definitely shouldn’t be happening is people criticising and tearing down smaller publications for their reduced budgets. Or just for existing. Small independent publications are not what’s wrong with the industry. They may be the easier target, but they are not the problem. If you want to criticise or put pressure on the industry, look at the people at the top. Criticise the larger publications who don’t always pay their writers fairly. Or who make their writers chase payments for months. Or publications who still offer unpaid internships. That’s where the problem in journalism lies, and that’s where the energy and focus should be.
Shahed Ezaydi is the Deputy Editor of Aurelia. @shahedezaydi
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