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The typing factory: All I wanted was for someone to give me a chance

First published in Radnicka Prava, 27/7/2022. The article is translated as a part of the cooperation between the members of the Eastern European Left Media Outlet – ELMO. Publication was also supported by the Agency for Electronic Media through the Fund for the Promotion of Pluralism and Diversity of Electronic Media.

Translated by Borna Karanušić.

“It was sold to me like it was some great opportunity. Still green, yet working in your own profession, great! In return I used to get free tickets to concerts, and I always had a side job at a call center. A labor contract was non-existent, of course. It was mostly like that, and after a couple of years I would get a couple hundred kuna as a thank you for my work and the effort I put in.”

– This is how Lucija described her own experience of unpaid labor, which has become normalized in the journalism sector. Matea Gregurinović brings us a few stories by young journalists about their attempts to cut through to a better job and about the general state of journalism in Croatia.

When we hear the word ‘journalist,’ what comes to mind first? Perhaps you’ve thought of a few commonplace derogatory terms for journalists, but do we ever think about the people that such language refers to, sitting in front of their computers, typing away at endless media content?

Do we think about their working conditions or their effect on the content we read? Usually not.

As stated in the first part of the publication Working Materials for the Discussion of Media Policy of the Republic of Croatia 2015-2020 “National Report on Media”, the state of journalism is getting worse. You can come to the same conclusion just by scrolling through news portals. A survey conducted on a random sample by the authors confirmed “that journalism in Croatia is an increasingly precarious occupation, which is also becoming less and less well-paid.” Work volume has also increased, accompanied by a lower real wage. The authors added that overtime has become an everyday scenario for 60 percent of journalists (almost 70 percent in the daily press), but was paid for in only 10 percent of cases. The authors further something known to everyone who has spent a few weeks, or even days, at a daily editorial desk– that “on the media ‘assembly line,’ investigative work or research is not an option”. The authors also write that fact-checking and seeking additional sources is not only uncommon, but is also sometimes seen as “stalling” publication, as most journalists work with extremely short deadlines. They consider this“one of the causes for the reduced availability of information and sources,” which is “a crucial formative part of their work.”

Radnička Prava asked three female journalists to talk about their experiences in journalism. All three of them still work in the field and would like to stay there, which is why we will use pseudonyms — we will call them Tanja, Karla and Lucija.

Tanja has had more than 15 years of experience working in journalism; she has worked in television, as well as print and electronic publications. After she completed her journalism studies, employers mostly offered her freelance and fixed-term contracts. “Insecure and atypical forms of work have become typical and commonplace for me and most of my colleagues,” Tanja said, adding: “With this type of contract, you rarely have any room to maneuver or to discuss anything work-related. The only element you can negotiate is the fee, that is, your wages. In fact, you can pretty much forget about sick leave, holidays, weekends off or paid overtime.”

Endless possibilities for manipulation

Freelance contracts stipulate when a news segment, report or piece, meaning a journalist’s original work, should be delivered – and that’s about it, says Tanja, adding: “Of course, under such contracts, the employer has endless possibilities to manipulate their workers and adapt the working conditions to their own needs. What you have to learn in the meantime is to negotiate your salary; it often happens that younger colleagues are paid as little as two thirds the sum for the same amount of work.”

Since she has a lot of experience working at private television broadcasts, she gave us a sense of what this can look like. Very often you have intensive television assignments averaging 10–11 working hours a day; but, as she told us, “sometimes this can be as many as 14 hours a day; it’s rare to get an assignment that takes less than 10 hours.” Most of these 10–11 hours are spent in the field, filming and interviewing people, whereas the commute to the studio or even the time it takes to transfer the recorded material to the newsroom servers, is not considered part of the working day.

“After three or four months of working on such demanding work assignments, you need at least a month-long vacation, but if you have not negotiated a proper salary, you usually can’t afford one. If, let’s say, you catch Covid, as was the case for me, the employer found a way for me to work remotely, asking me to work while I’m sick. If I refused to work, a certain amount  would be deducted from my fixed salary. The manipulation that’s going on with these precarious contracts is boundless and as long as the institutions turn a blind eye to the exploitation and mistreatment of the labor force, employers will have free rein to treat workers the way they find most suitable at the given moment,” Tanja concludes.

The second person we talked to, Karla, has worked mostly for online portals and radio. She has some experience with working on television. This was in fact her first work experience and her first encounter with journalism, a three-month internship for a well-known television broadcast. “I was working for the TV desk. For free, of course,” she tells us.

“Nobody promised me contracts, I was a student”

She was in her twenties at the time. At about 25 years old, she started working for a well-known Zagreb radio station. But since the station was bankrupt, she spent almost an entire year volunteering. “When the station was sold off, I got some money – at the time it seemed like a lot of money to me, but it really wasn’t. That wasalmost all of my earnings for a year, I think I got 15,000 kuna [€2,000] all together. I worked full-time, and even more, from 8 or 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. or longer, until the very last news show was broadcast. We also worked weekends, or shifts starting at 6 a.m. – the news standard,” Karla explains.

That was about ten years ago, and it was generally harder to find a job in journalism back then, she goes on. “Nobody promised me any contracts, I was a student, I wanted the work experience, I loved that job and that radio station, and I even had no problem working for free, nor did I blame anyone for it. It was my choice; I could have left whenever I wanted to. It was great, very creative and I learned a lot. When I started working for larger media outlets, there was no more volunteering, and I was more experienced. It didn’t even occur to me at that time to work for free, the wages were more or less okay.”

The period that Karla is talking about, following the 2008 crisis, was marked by high unemployment among journalists. According to Katarina Jaklin in Journalists First, Workers Second, the Croatian Employment Service (HZZ), between 2008 and 2015 3,604 journalists entered the Register of Unemployed Persons. “This is a huge increase in the number of unemployed journalists, considering the fact that in 2008 there were only 227 newly registered unemployed journalists, and 5 years later, in 2013, this number hit a record 747. In the same period, the number of employees working for newspapers was cut down by half, and the number of people working for magazines and periodicals went down 40 percent. The decline in employment in other media sectors (television, radio, and news agencies) was less severe, while online media companies showed growth during that period. But employment growth in this sector corresponds almost exactly to the rise of newly established enterprises – the number of employees increased from 40 to 248 while the number of enterprises increased from 17 to 199,” says Jaklin.

Journalist Slavica Lukić spoke to the authors of the “National Report on Media” about how much the position of journalists has been weakened. The position of journalists had been further degraded by economic crisis, layoffs, wage cuts, unilateral violations and the termination of collective agreements in media. The economic crisis has often been used as an excuse to undermine journalists’ material rights as well as labor rights. Experienced journalists were fired, and cheaper and less experienced people took their place through [freelance] contracts.”

The Trade Union of Croatian Journalists (SNH) warned about the fragile position of journalists in a statement at the beginning of the Covid crisis. They stated that from the beginning of the crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic up until April 2020, more than 85 percent of journalists and other media workers lost part or all of their work placements, and in a number of media outlets, the wages have been reduced for full-time employees. At that time, SNH stated that at the Glas Istre newspaper, the salaries were cut by 50 percent. The salaries also went down at Novi list, Croatian Radiotelevision (HRT) and the HANZA group; contracts were suspended for most permanent freelance associates of HRT, as well as for the majority of permanent freelancers at HANZA media (Jutarnji list, Slobodna Dalmacija, Globus…). Similarly, 28.7 percent of freelance journalists and freelance associates were left without any assignments for the Croatian media; 26.2 percent lost most of their assignments, and 15.9 percent of them saw their number of assignments cut by half.

“I understood what a modern labor market means in the private sector”

Working at a media company, Karla also got a full-time contract, but after a few years, she was fired all the same, because the project she had been working on was suddenly shut down. “It was a big blow to me because I realized what a modern labor market means in the private sector. Sure, I could have gone to court, but I figured I had neither the resources nor the nerves to go through years of litigation. Maybe I should have done that. I took the severance pay’ with which they bribed me to sign a consensual termination of the contract, an unbelievably small amount. But I got a job right away, so the extra money that I didn’t count on came in handy,” she added.

Karla did not study journalism, but she fell in love with it through working for television.

“It never occurred to me that I was going to be a journalist because I didn’t go to school for that, but then I got the internship to work for television. I fell in love with journalism and tried to stay in the industry any way I could. But it was very difficult then, there were so few opportunities. For a while I volunteered at small local radio stations just to stay up to date, until I started working for the radio.”

She desperately wanted her chance, even though chances were few, she said. In the meantime, things have changed a bit, she added, “there’s more media, people go in and out more, you always find a place. I wanted to do it so much that I did it for free. The only thing I wanted was for somebody to give me a chance,” she concludes.

What Karla says is true: the current situation in journalism is different in the sense that there are more media than, say, ten years ago. While there is no new research that will accurately map out the current situation, it appears that the number of media companies in Croatia is growing. But what are the working conditionsand pay for young journalists entering the profession? Do they have a sense of journalistic ethics or older mentors who will guide them through the work? Do young journalists have the opportunity to educate themselves and specialize in a specific field? How does this affect public opinion with regard to journalism and journalists themselves? That’s rarely talked about.

A couple hundred kuna – a thank you for the (journalist’s) work

The third person we talked to – Lucija – also started out with volunteer work. “It was sold to me like some great opportunity. Still green, yet working in your own profession, great! In return I would get free tickets to concerts, and I always had a side job at a call-center. A working contract was non-existent, of course. It was mostly likethat, and after a couple of years I would get a couple hundred kuna as a thank you for my work and the effort I put in,” she added.

With experience came new obligations too. Basically, this meant that she often had to do a number of other tasks and assignments in addition to her journalist work. “I’d be working tasks that had nothing to do with journalism at all, it was purely operational. I worked on the organizing team and on the editorial board, and based on that I received fees from projects. Of course, I also did journalistic assignments. It was only when I got to a real media company that I received a real salary and a full-time contract, but even I had to ‘do some extra work as I go along’ because someone had to do it.”

Young people face a lot of problems when looking for (and finding) a job and an opportunity, says Lucija. She tells us that writing as a skill is presented as something that ‘everyone knows,’ so the job young people get is presented to them as an amazing opportunity for a journalist, something that can be put on a resume and which can help you find a better job later on.

The problem is also that the agreed-upon fee somehow gets reduced when it gets to the actual payment, so it ends up much lower than what you’re promised. “Not to mention the delay in payments, we would wait for as long as a couple of months to get paid, and we are always the last on the list because it’s ‘just a measly’ 800-1,000 kn,” Lucija added.

She also points out that the uninteresting topics that the seniors do not want to cover get dumped on the young people, so that “the opportunity for growth and development gets irreversibly lost.” The young people are here, she explains, “to do the filler texts that get all the clicks and it is hard to win the opportunity to really develop your journalistic name. And the climate itself is all ‘you’re on your own, kid,’ because the older generations often feel threatened, as if we were there to snatch their jobs away from them, so they have no incentive to show us the basics,” she tells us.

Lastly, Lucija also says the following: “The conditions are bad and are constantly changing. Quality is viewed through clicks and sheer quantity, and [the older colleagues] find it ridiculous that we need as many as a few days for a single piece. Also, many people that we interview seem to be under the impression that we are doing a PR article about them, and not a real live piece – everything is subject to criticism, and they often demand to authorize the final text even though they didn’t pay for the piece itself. Because of all this, it is absolutely impossible to get normal working conditions, and there’s the assumption that we write as if we’re in a typing factory, promptly from 9 to 5 – without even realizing that we receive replies to our inquiries at 11 at night – as well as the idea that we just so happen to get a rush of inspiration later in the day. And if we say anything to complain, they can easily replace us for someone who will work for free just for the opportunity.”

Matea Grgurinović is a reporter and researcher focused mostly on poverty, inequality and labour rights, as well as climate change and trauma, with a strong interest in the Balkans, China and the post-Soviet space.