A remarkable student finished my News Writing and Reporting class this past semester with an A-plus. She wants to practice law.
Another remarkable student also finished with an A-plus. He wants to work in sales.
Journalism is freakin’ doomed.
OK, two anecdotes do not a crisis make. But I wish — unrealistically, of course — that all the talent I see in my courses would want to choose journalism as a career.
You might be surprised that, despite the misguided death declarations for the field, the number of journalism majors in the U.S. rose 6% from 2015 to 2018, according to a survey by the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication. At the University of Alabama, on-campus enrollment in our journalism department has more than doubled in the past two years.
Future professional journalists don’t have to come from among journalism majors (as I can personally attest). But many majors go elsewhere for careers, such as public relations, marketing or social media jobs. Within journalism specialties, sports and TV remain popular. Print/online news reporting is far less so, unfortunately. (I base all these statements on student questionnaires I use for class purposes, plus anecdotal contacts with grads.)
News organizations need to create better working conditions if they want to attract and keep talent. I recently came across a couple of accurate Twitter threads that called on the industry to, among other things, provide living wages and benefits for all employees, create better job security, favor quality of work over quantity and defend journalists against partisan pressure campaigns (on May 20, The Associated Press didn’t, and that’s what prompted the threads). “There is no future for a field that doesn’t take care of the people doing the work,” Heather Bryant of News Catalyst wrote.
Still, journalism can be immensely rewarding as a calling, and I can cite a good list of grads from the past few years who chose this line of work, including the traditional print/online route. I asked a few of them why. If you’re expecting all rainbows and sunshine, guess again.
- Sara Wilson, The Pueblo (Colorado) Chieftain — “I’m writing about politics, which was my goal, and I kind of hold on to the fact that I’m the only print reporter living in Southern Colorado full time on this beat, so there’s a lot of opportunity to really own it. All the basic reasons I love journalism are still here – meeting new people, learning every day, embedding yourself in a community.” At the same time, she points to an uncertain future. “This is a thankless job, and I don’t know if I’m altruistic enough to suffer through the low pay and constant anxiety to stick with it.”
- Ben Lasseter, Sanpete (Utah) Messenger — “I am at a stage of life when I do not mind working long hours, as long as I am building skills that will continue to contribute to a career that suits my lifestyle. I like to keep current with important events and be a responsible source of information to people, so for now, I am still ‘full steam ahead’ on a path in journalism that I expect to continue to bring surprises and opportunities.” But he adds, “I am not without doubts about how well I can make a career in this field in the long run. … In an industry that, unfortunately, is primarily driven by economics, why should I have faith that this crucial trend will reverse itself?”
- Laura Testino, Commercial Appeal (Memphis) — Laura can testify about the issue of job security. She hoped that a fellowship at the Times-Picayune in New Orleans would lead to a full-time job there, but the entire newsroom lost their jobs when the T-P was surprisingly sold to a rival news organization. “At that moment, I decided, if I should be so lucky to continue in journalism, I would do it only in a place that I loved and where I could afford to lose my job.” But she’s better than just lucky and landed at the Commercial Appeal. On her first day, Gannett and Gatehouse announced their merger, and within a year she and everyone else at the CA were furloughed for three weeks. Her beat is education and children’s issues, such as pandemic safety and racial disparities in schools. “I felt I was helping people understand some of the most important stories I may ever tell.”
- Haley Wilson, soon to join Birmingham Times – “You never know whose story you’ll be telling and the impact it will have on them. You could be someone’s saving grace by just getting their story out there. At the end of the day that is truly my favorite part. There’s always going to be concerns about pay and long hours. … You won’t be happy working long hours for something that doesn’t get you excited to get up in the morning.”
- Rebecca Griesbach, freelance journalist for national publications and soon to join al.com — “It’s all fun to me. And there’s no other space that would have allowed me to be and do so many things at once than journalism. I can be an activist (for the truth, for information, for accountability). I can be a historian or a policy wonk. I can be an artist and a mathematician and a detective. You don’t really see that in other fields — and I think that’s why I’ve always sort of returned to journalism even when I felt a tension with it or when I got burned out or frustrated.” Burnout? At her age? Yes, sometimes. “Even at 23 years old, (long hours and other work conditions) have cost me relationships, my mental health, my physical health, financial stability. Yes, I’m concerned that one day the joy and daily fulfillment I get from doing this work won’t be enough. That sucks. And that’s all I really have to say about that until someone fixes it.”
Hearing these eyes-wide-open answers, I feel both hopeful and alarmed. Speaking generally, too many news organizations take advantage of the market conditions they helped to create. If an employed journalist gets fed up, there’s an unemployed one to take their place. Management also knows many of its staff will tolerate tough conditions because they’re motivated by the importance of their work.
Nothing is more important to a news outlet’s business success than talent that produces quality work. You’re going to struggle with that if, at the College Career Fair, no one shows up at your table.
Tom Arenberg is an instructor of news media at the University of Alabama. He worked for The Birmingham News and the Alabama Media Group for 30 years. He published this commentary originally as a post on his blog, The Arenblog.
About News is a BirminghamWatch feature that publishes commentary by those who teach the craft and think about the values and performance of today’s journalism, a civic flashpoint. BirminghamWatch is a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News whose members generally rely on individual gifts, foundation grants and sponsorships to support their work. It also publishes About News articles on Facebook and Twitter and invites readers to join the conversation about their news in those forums.