The Historical Spectator.

Making a Living as a Victorian Journalist

Is journalism a good profession for an educated young man who finds himself in need of an income? Anyone can do it, says our anonymous author. But that is the difficulty: anyone can do it, so everyone does.

As a mere money-coining pursuit, there is a good deal to be said both for or against journalism. It is emphatically one of those trades, aspired after by old Tulliver in the “Mill on the Floss,” which require no capital and are all profit. A ream of paper, a box of pens, a bottle of ink, a table, and a chair, are all the stock-in-trade required. You want no offices, no studio, no shop, to be a writer; you have no need, except in a very incidental way, to go to expense to keep up appearances; you require neither carriages nor horses, clerks nor servants, for the extension of your business. Indeed, access to a good library of reference, not in itself a very difficult or expensive object to accomplish, is about the only outlay absolutely essential to success as a professional writer. And, in spite of all that has been written about the difficulty of getting any sort of employment as an unknown aspirant to literary fame, we believe there is no trade in which it is so easy to get a start as that of journalism. To make a beginning is always difficult, but not more so, we hold, in literature than elsewhere. By the laws of trade, which no novice can defy with impunity, a briefless barrister cannot go and ask solicitors to give him cases to plead; a medical student who has won every honour and medal the faculty could bestow upon him, cannot solicit patients to employ his services; and young divines, burning with eloquence, cannot command the use of a pulpit, or enforce the attendance of a congregation. But a writer, without any breach of etiquette, may go and pester every publisher and editor in London to provide a market for his literary wares; and he must be singularly unfortunate if he cannot find any one disposed to give him a trial. Indeed, the facility with which any new recruit can get enlisted into the army of journalism is one of its defects as a permanent trade. Anybody may enter it when or how he chooses. We writers may conceive ourselves to possess an extraordinary aptitude for pleading a case, or curing bodies, or converting souls, but we can no more go and argue a case in court, or perform an operation, or preach a sermon, than we can fly without wings. But any barrister or curate or surgeon, or, for that matter, any apothecary, attorney, or minister, may come and poach upon our premises to-morrow; and if he can but hit his game, his services as a literary sportsman are as valuable as ours. But this accessibility of journalism to all comers, though it depreciates what we may term the net value of the calling, offers great attractions to young men in search of a profession, who have neither connection nor opening. No doubt if a man chooses to commence his literary career by writing epic poems, or five act dramas, or philosophical treatises, he may be a long time, whatever his merits are, before he finds a means of making his voice heard; but if he produces such articles as are fitted for general consumption, he will have no difficulty in finding a purchaser. Anybody, for instance, who wants employment as a journalist, has really nothing to do except to write letters to a paying newspaper on any subject of passing interest; and if his letters are good enough to secure insertion, he will be certain, sooner or later, to have the chance given him of trying his hand as a professional writer.

When the neophyte has once secured a periodical which admits his contributions, it rests with him to push his advantage. It is not as in other trades, where, whatever may be the talent of the student, years of toil are required before he can command the same remuneration as his older brethren. As in the parable, the workman who comes in at the eleventh hour commands his penny equally with those who have borne the burden and heat of the day. No doubt the experienced and practised journalist, with a known name, will at first obtain a higher rate of remuneration than an unknown aspirant; but this is only because he is likely to turn out a better article, and what is more, has given proof that he can continue to turn out such articles whenever they are required. No very long probation, however, is needed for a man to show whether he has in him the real making of a periodical writer, and when he has shown that, his position is secured.

From these causes we hold that there is no pursuit at the present day in which it is so easy to get a start, or to earn a moderate income in a short time, as journalism. Barristers, medical men, clergymen, civil servants, merchants’ clerks, architects, and naval or military officers, would as a rule consider themselves fortunate if they cleared a couple of hundred a year by their profession at the end of some years of hard work and practice. Now, a writer in newspapers and magazines can hardly fail, with decent application and fair fortune, to make that amount at least in his first year; and this very facility of earning an income at first starting is one of the chief dangers of journalism as a career. The money is earned with no excessive labour; it is paid promptly; and every young writer thinks the amount can be extended indefinitely without difficulty. If for a couple of hours’ work you can earn a pound, let us say, by writing an article,—it can be shown mathematically that with six hours’ work a day you can obtain a weekly income of some nine hundred a year. The calculation would be perfect if it were not for the fact that it is a great deal more than twice as difficult to write two good articles a day as it is to write one; and also that, even if you could produce any number of excellent articles per diem, without any deterioration in the quality of the article produced, you would find it extremely difficult to insure a market for your wares. We recollect a young writer talking to us once about his prospects, and saying he had no fear about wanting money, as he could always earn his two guineas a day by writing before breakfast such an article as he had just sent off to his employers. With the wisdom of older experience, we pointed out that, even if he could send forth such an essay every morning, the weekly journal for which he then wrote would certainly not place six columns a week at his disposal ; and that, failing the paper in question, there was not a single periodical which had any demand for the sort of serial essay he had just excogitated. Of course our advice was not attended to; and equally of course, we may add, when our acquaintance was forced by circumstances to take to journalism as a profession, not as an amateur occupation, he found he could not earn his bread.

In journalism, unlike most other pursuits, it is not the “premier pas qui coute.” About taking the first step there is no great cost or difficulty; it is the second and third steps which are so difficult to surmount. Most young men of good education and fair abilities can put together an article which, with a certain amount of editorial correction, will bear insertion; and we take it there are very few men of the class we describe who do not know enough about some one or more special subjects to write creditably upon them. But, then, the fact that most educated men can do this renders the talent of comparatively little value. What A does, however good it may be, B, C, D, and so on down to Z, can do equally well; and therefore it is not worth anybody’s while to pay A more than the market value of his article. It is, we should say from our own experience, very difficult practically for purveyors of ordinary literary matter to earn much more in their second year than in their first; and their income, small as it is, is necessarily a precarious one. So long as a writer of second-rate calibre happens to satisfy the proprietors of the journal for which he writes, he may draw his three, four, or five pounds a week regularly without much trouble or difficulty. He does his work as well as any one else of the class, and if he were not employed somebody else would have to be engaged in his stead for much the same salary. But if the periodical falls off, as periodicals will fall off, or if from any change in his relations with the owners he loses the engagement, he is almost as much at sea as when he first commenced his literary career.

From The Saint Pauls Magazine, December, 1867.