In the era of remote working, is London’s monopoly over the media crumbling?
Journalism has often been criticsed for being ‘London-centric’, but with remote opportunities rising in popularity, will the London bubble burst? Eloise Barry takes a deeper look.
For the first 20 years of my life, I lived in London – and couldn’t imagine anything different. When my family moved to North Yorkshire and I went to university in Leeds, I decided I’d be returning to my home city as soon as possible.
Then reality hit, and I began to appreciate my childhood privilege of having family based in London. Returning as an unemployed student meant imposing myself on friends or extended family, or sub-letting horribly overpriced rooms in shared houses. In my first year of university, a fair amount of my student loan went on trains to London, trains in London, and trains out of London.
It is well known that the UK’s financial, professional, and cultural economy is disproportionately concentrated in the capital. The UK2070 Commission last year declared the UK “one of the most regionally unbalanced countries in the industrialised world”. London outperforms other UK regions and states in terms of productivity, human capital and wages. In addition, it receives more public funding per person.
It comes as no surprise that London is the hub of national media in the UK. Almost all the major print and broadcast outlets have their headquarters in the capital. Decisions to be based elsewhere are met with scepticism by many in the industry.
However, the huge shift towards remote and home working precipitated by the pandemic is undermining London’s monopoly over the media landscape. National news outlets such as The Financial Times, the Guardian, and ITV are exploring the option of integrating remote working on a long-term basis.
Newsrooms are operating largely without anyone in the office; even Jon Snow is presenting Channel 4 News from his living room. All of this begs the question: does it even matter where the news is produced?
For many journalists already based outside of London, the sign of London’s decreasing influence is a positive consequence of the pandemic. For Katie Williams, a freelance multimedia journalist from Scotland, the pandemic freed up time to co-found a podcast, Northern Natter. In typical pandemic-fashion, she met her co-presenter, Katie Baggott, on Twitter and the duo have been producing and recording their podcast over Zoom.
According to Katie, the pair set up Northern Natter to provide “industry advice to journalists to prove that you don’t need to move to London to get into the industry. We’re showing people from Northern England and Scotland that they can do it too.”
Even though there may be fewer jobs available in Scotland, Katie argued that this has its own benefit. “You’d be fighting a lot more down in London because there are so many people going for the same jobs.”
Initiatives aimed at strengthening regional journalism are springing up across the UK. Katie took part in BBC The Social, an online platform from BBC Scotland, which provides a space for young people to produce their own news packages, from documentaries to interviews. As Katie said, it is “content for Scotland, by [the people of] Scotland.”
“People expect me to move to London,” she said, “but being in Scotland has actually helped me to learn a lot early on my career. It’s a small world and so it’s much easier to make connections within the industry.”
Even before the pandemic, London was starting to lose its appeal. In 2018, London became the only region in England where more people left than arrived from other parts of the country. Fleeing pollution, overcrowding, and low wage value, young people have been seeking a better quality of life elsewhere.
Nicola Slawson, a freelance journalist now based in Shropshire, could not be happier with her decision to leave London. In a recent episode of Lily Canter and Emma Wilkinson’s podcast, Freelancing For Journalists, Nicola explained how her quality of life improved: “Now, I’ve got a garden, a cellar, a shed, a spare room to be an office. I was living in a studio flat in London so my bed was in the same room as my living room.”
Nicola decided to move right at the beginning of the pandemic. She was particularly worried that her work would dry up if she was unable to commute into London newsrooms. However, the shift to remote working has been a blessing in disguise: “I still do shifts at The Guardian on the news desk – that’s because everyone’s at home! So it’s worked out much better than I thought.”
She was also worried that she would miss out by being unable to network at the many conferences and events hosted every year in London. Like her work, they have all moved online. “The pandemic’s been a brilliant leveller on that front,” she said.
It is clear that the pandemic will change the face of journalism for good. While jobs have been lost and commissioning budgets have been cut, the industry has reorganised around virtual office spaces and webinars.
PressPad adapted to this change by launching PressPad Remote, a series of free workshops, clinics, and talks aimed at helping young journalists break into the industry. To take part all you needed was an internet connection.
If the pandemic has proven anything, it is that, in order to reflect the lives and realities of the people it serves, the media must champion everyone – not just those with a London postcode.