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High pressure, long hours and low pay: Why young journalists in Hong Kong are ditching the media industry

In August 2014, i-Cable news sent intern Yoyo Chan to go undercover in order to expose how anti-Umbrella Movement protesters, led by pro-government figure Robert Chow, were in fact paid to turn up. After seeing recruitment messages on discussion forums, Chan signed up and rushed over to the meeting point with a photographer. The tour bus was packed with “demonstrators” donning t-shirts that said they belonged to a Hong Kong youth group. Chan was paid HK$250 for protesting.

The news caused uproar among the public and was cited by other local media outlets, with Chan receiving glowing praise from i-Cable chief Ronald Chiu. Now 24 years old, back then Chan was only a sophomore at the Chinese University of Hong Kong journalism school.

Yoyo Chan

Yoyo Chan (top-left), who was with i-Cable news. Photo: i-Cable screenshot.

Chan said she was always a news junkie and studied journalism because she felt that one could learn a lot by being a journalist: “It exposes you to different things, and I’ve always been a rather nosy and curious person,” she joked.

Upon graduation, her wish was granted: even though she had no background in finance and economics, her job as a financial reporter and anchor with i-Cable meant that she quickly became proficient in reading stock prices and company annual reports that often go on for hundreds of pages.

But Chan only spent a little over 18 months with the station before leaving the industry. She is now a Project and Content Executive with Eastern Vision, a Hong Kong-based company which organises tours to Tibet, North Korea and Iran intending to “drive participants to examine the historical, political, social-economical and cultural aspects of the target destination.”

It is no secret that journalism is a high stress, long hours yet low-paying industry in Hong Kong. Last year, when gambling magnate Lui Che-woo told reporters at a press conference that he believed their salary was “at least HK$40,000-HK$50,000” his remarks drew backlash for how far from reality they were.

According to a 2016 Hong Kong Journalist Association survey — the organisation has not updated the figures since — 32 per cent of the 400 journalists interviewed made HK$10,000 to HK$15,000 per month, while 22 per cent had monthly incomes between HK$15,000 to HK$20,000. Only 16 per cent earned over HK$30,000 a month.

The respondents said low pay was the most significant reason in considering whether to leave the industry. “The Hong Kong Journalists Association is worried that the high turnover rates of journalists caused by the low salaries will in turn affect the quality of news,” the group said in a press release then.

Chan told HKFP that, although financial concerns were not the reason behind her career change, one of her peers was paid under HK$14,000 a month, even after two years in the field. Chan said that, out of 70 or so students in her year, only two or three remained as reporters. “Even people I thought were great journalists have had career changes,” she said, adding that this was especially the case for those whose families faced financial pressures.

Acquaintances of hers who left journalism, Chan noted, now worked for public bodies. And industries such as corporate communications or PR also favoured people with journalism backgrounds because they were used to dealing with different people and were able to think on their feet.

yoyo chan

Yoyo Chan. Photo provided by interviewee.

But Chan left journalism because only newcomers were sent out for on-the-ground reporting, due to a lack of resources. “At most media outlets, if you’re an anchor, you would be sitting in the office most of the time – and you won’t have much chance to go out. I was quite bored, and not being there in person – I didn’t feel like what I was writing was convincing,” she said.

“We report a lot on the Chinese economy, but you never really know what the economy in, say, Liaoning, is like, if you haven’t been there – so you don’t know if it’s true when it is reported that there is a depression… but we’re writing about this every day. And a lot of times, we’re just re-writing news from China, and it feels like the true purpose of being a journalist is lost.”

Gone were the days when media outlets could afford to send its reporters to cover the US elections, and opportunities to experience events first-hand were becoming increasingly rare, Chan added. She now works with Eastern Vision in order to see more of the world: “It’s more or less why I initially chose [to study journalism] – it’s just that the subject matter is different.”

robin ewing

Robin Ewing. Photo: YouTube screencap.

Chan’s decision to leave was reflective of a talent retention problem in the local journalism industry. According to Robin Ewing, Director of International Journalism at the Hong Kong Baptist University, around 15 to 50 per cent of fresh graduates in journalism programmes will join the industry, but the figure drops after they are out of school for a couple of years. For instance, in a batch of around 60-80 international journalism undergraduates from 2008-2009, only four to five are still working in the field, she said.

Ewing told HKFP that low wages were a problem in newsrooms not just locally but around the world, especially with entry-level jobs. While international outlets often pay better, she said, there is a local/expat salary gap in many newsrooms and they still operate on a two-tier hiring system. While foreign correspondents are offered attractive packages and housing allowances, locals often work as news assistants or researchers with lower salaries and fewer benefits.

Armchair reporting & no mentorship

But Ewing said that pay was only one of the factors – “It’s also burnout and the feeling that there is no upward mobility,” she added. “I’ve heard young journalists complain about lack of mentorship from editors, lack of growth opportunities, long hours and pressure to churn out shallow content to meet publishing demands.”

Ewing said the impact of the 24-digital news cycle on the media, especially outlets tight on money, mean that “journalists sacrifice shoe-leather reporting and in-depth stories for short blurbs on viral content or one-minute social videos in order to meet company KPIs (clicks).”

“As young people are expected to create much of this shallow content, I think this affects not only their morale but also stunts their professional growth. If the workplace culture teaches young journalists that one-source stories or reports written directly from press releases are good enough, then where is the incentive to produce meaningful work?”

Many newsrooms these days are stretched thin, resulting in an expectation-reality mismatch amongst those who studied journalism. CUHK’s Yuen Chan said: “People feel like… that wasn’t what I studied journalism to do, I want to be out there, I want to be working on stories.”

The Hong Kong Journalist Association’s Shirley Yam attributes the problem to a lack of training provided to young journalists, which not only compromises the quality of reporting but also, in turn, leads to frustration and high turnover.

“[W]ith the rush for online news reporting, training has become a luxury for many,” she said, adding that few media outlets sponsor their staff for HKJA’s training workshop – even when they only cost HK$50.

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“Young journalists are the media’s link to the new generations. We have already witnessed an increasing gap between the new generation and the professional media be it traditional or online.”

“It’s daunting to see professional media becoming irrelevant among the youngsters. Engagement of them is crucial to the well being of Hong Kong. And you definitely don’t want to leave this to the social media,” Yam mused.

‘Hostility from all sides’

Yuen Chan, a senior lecturer at the Chinese University’s journalism school, has also seen students shy away from embracing a career in the newsroom: “I have students who graduated, who really wanted to give journalism a go… they believe in it, they’re committed to it – [but] there are family financial pressures that makes it very difficult for them to stay in this industry and I think that’s desperately sad.”

Chan also said that, as reporters, and especially now with the widespread practice of live broadcasts on social media, when “you fail, you fail very publicly.” In the comments section in videos, for example, netizens may demand to know “which reporter asked that really stupid question.”

“I feel really bad for the reporters, because a lot of them are really very young.” Sometimes, she said, it may not even be the reporter’s question – but one fed to them by their editors – and there may be a reason for the question that the lay person isn’t aware of.

yuen chan

CUHK’s Yuen Chan. Photo provided by interviewee.

One popular page on Facebook is dedicated to pointing out mistakes made in news articles or juxtapositions of Chinese words that create unfortunate implications. Although light-hearted, Chan said part of the reason why people make mistakes “is related to the fact that there’s such a high turnover and everybody is under so much pressure to produce such a quick turnaround.”

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27th September 2014, Tamar Park. Photo: Lamuel Chung via Flickr.

Additionally, there is the “hostility from all sides” journalists in Hong Kong face these days, according to Chan, which was especially evident during the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014 – when the pro-Beijing camp saw the media as liberal, pan-democrat supporting troublemakers, while protesters viewed journalists as allied with the establishment. “Journalists are caught in the middle… everybody feels you’re working against them.”

It is also becoming increasingly dangerous to be a journalist in Hong Kong. A  knife attack on ex-Ming Pao editor-in-chief Kevin Lau in February 2014 alarmed both journalists and the general public and – just weeks ago – reporters from Hong Kong were attacked while covering news in China.

Self-censorship also continues to be a concern in Hong Kong’s newsrooms, not only frustrating young journalists but further eroding public trust towards the media. However, Chan believes credit should be given to journalists who are still trying to “hold the fort.”

“Recently I’ve seen some people on social media posting about [how] journalism can’t change anything, journalists just write what they’re told to by their bosses anyway,” Chan said. “And I think that is really unfair.”

She is heartened by how individual frontline journalists have stood up and when they “got together and they put the foot down” – such as with Ming Pao’s staff union. In 2015, they released a statement in protest after then-chief editor Chong Tien Siong decided to change the front page after midnight from a report on confidential documents related to the 1989 Tiananmen massacre – already approved by top-level editors – to a story about Alibaba chief Jack Ma.

Ming Pao union protest against Chong Tien Siong.

The Ming Pao union protest against Chong Tien Siong. Photo: Facebook/Ming Pao Staff Association.

“I think what people really misunderstand [is] that the overall environment is difficult, but… our press is still not the mainland press, and there are still a lot of things we can still say, a lot of stories journalists are doing in spite of all of that.”

Connections & comparisons

A local journalism school graduate, who gave his name as Will, worked for several years in the field before joining the police force. He told HKFP that although most of his classmates did not end up working in the field, “it’s not that you necessarily have to be a journalist just because you studied journalism… journalism training is very holistic.”

He said he was satisfied with his time as a reporter, and recalls being given a lot of freedom. Within a month into a new job, he had landed a front-page story; in journalism, he said, “[y]ou don’t have to be a senior-level staff in order to be given senior-level work.” His career change, he said, was mostly “opportunistic” – he said he applied to become a police officer on a whim, and would have stayed in the newsroom for a couple more years were it not for his offer.

But he admitted that the career ladder and prospects felt unclear in journalism, and that it was not a job for someone with financial and family pressure. When asked about whether he struggled with the decision, Will stated that any government-related job offered much better salaries.

Jobs with the government or disciplinary forces often fetch an entry-level salaries which are double that of a reporter’s: an executive officer makes HK$28,000 a month and an administrative officer HK$49,000. Police constables earn at least HK$23,000 while inspectors earn over HK$40,000 upon entry.

However, fresh graduates who just joined the journalism industry, Will said, would make around HK$10,000, and – in under five years – it could still be under HK$20,000.

“The opportunity cost of changing industry is small, and the attractiveness is high – especially if you have a couple of years of experience under your belt, and since your skills are so transferrable,” Will said. And it was not difficult for one to return to the field in the future.

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Hong Kong journalists outside a courtroom. Photo: Karen Cheung/HKFP.

Yuen Chan said that the CUHK programme was a competitive one, and some students told her that they could have gone into another major or trajectory that earned them a lot more money. “So there’s always going to be that comparison.”

But she believed that even if some entered the journalism industry in order to build up contacts and connections that would put them in a good position for their next steps, they could still respect the profession and do a good job in the meantime.

“At the same time, I think it’s never been as important to have people practising journalism. I hope there will always be young people who find it a calling,” Chan said.

High pressure, long hours and low pay: Why young journalists in Hong Kong are ditching the media industry