October 12, 2021

This column originally appeared in The Cohort, Poynter’s newsletter that centers conversations about gender in media. Subscribe here to join the community.

It’s just his senior year at Cal Poly, but Omar Rashad has already burnt out twice. The most recent time was earlier this year. He was juggling roles as the data and investigations editor at his student newspaper and a second reporting gig at Cal Matters while also taking classes full time for his journalism major during a pandemic. On bad days, he went to sleep at 3 a.m. after a full day of work. His family wanted him to take a break. But he couldn’t.

“The industry has been telling me for so long I need to be able to handle all this,” he said.

Rashad is the child of immigrants who has written about the biases he’s encountered as someone who attended a community college. His reporting has focused on educational issues, and he’s used his experiences to inform his reporting. Last year, he published two stories centering community college students that were undercovered by the media.

“I think it’s worth it that I’m writing these stories because I’m writing for people and writing for communities who are not typically centered,” he said. “Now, is it worth sacrificing everything I’m sacrificing? Well no, no it’s not. I’m definitely already thinking of whether journalism is for me. I’ve already started looking at job boards that are not journalism related.”

As a millennial on the tail end of the “grateful to be here” generation, most of my college internships were unpaid and I didn’t hesitate for a moment to lay my body and mind down at the altar of the journalism gods for a chance to work in a newsroom. At the lowest point in my first post-grad job, I was scheduling social copy at four in the morning from a hallway gurney in the emergency room after all the muscles in my neck and shoulders locked up from anxiety.

From my small sample size, it seems that Gen Z journalists are more aware of the risks involved in this industry to their minds, bodies and bank accounts, and they’re not always willing to make the trade.

Alejandra Arévalo graduated from New York University in 2020 with a double major in journalism and sociology. After working for three months with The Atlantic’s COVID Tracking Project, she went on the market for a full-time job.

“I went to journalism school thinking that I wanted to write breaking news stories,” she said. “That I wanted to save the world with my writing, that I wanted to really unveil all the secrets that were deeply hidden, you know?”

By summertime, she’d received two newsroom job offers. The first one, which would require a move to the West Coast, paid $20 an hour.

“I looked into apartments … and there was no way that I would qualify for any of them,” she said. “Even with the support of my boyfriend who was also full-time employed at the time, there was no way we could make it work.” She turned it down because she was making more doing freelance copywriting from home.

While interviewing for the second publication that would offer her a job, she learned that she would be the first Latinx journalist in the newsroom. She turned that one down too. “I didn’t want to go into a racist newsroom. I was going to be their first Latina reporter, like ever. And there were, like, no people of color in daily editorial.”

Arévalo now works as a producer at a podcast production company doing journalism-adjacent work, though she’s not in a newsroom. She doesn’t have any regrets about the choice she made because she doesn’t believe the conventional wisdom that your first journalism job is supposed to be a nightmare.

“I think the pandemic and my generation just, we’re just looking for a good start and to change things. And if I have to wait to get that, I’ll wait.”

Not only is she happy to wait — she’s also realized that she’s willing to leave the industry. While listening to an interview with former journalist and Pinterest chief marketing officer Andréa Mallard on “The CMO Podcast with Jim Stengel,” she learned that her skills as a journalist could be useful in other industries.

“And I was like, this is a career path for me? I can be a reporter and then get into marketing and become the CMO of one of the best companies in the world? There’s way more of a life-work balance that is not available in journalism. And so I’m really conflicted.”

I’ve seen that resistance to compromise consistently across the young people I talked to. It’s possible that the pandemic shattered illusions about the type of satisfaction work can offer right as they were hitting an already hemorrhaged job market, which results in fewer jobs and fewer people willing to take scraps for an opportunity.

These young journalists’ stories mirrored the conversations I seem to always be having with my journalist peers who are grizzled from a decade of digital media acquisitions, mergers and layoffs.

Countless journalists have left the industry over the past year, many of them women and people of color. They’ve reflected on how when the day-to-day distractions fell away and they were confronted with the high stakes of this moment we’re living in, it became harder to justify low salaries, job instability and vicarious trauma for the noble myth of a journalistic calling. 

It’s hard not to envy the now-former journalists who share stories in Open News’ Exit Interview series about how they chose themselves over the noble myth of the journalistic calling. I hope that our industry is listening to what they have to say.

“I kept trying to find ways to be in this industry without feeling chronically depleted,” said Phoebe Gavin in her exit interview. “But in 2018, I realized that this magical journalism job where I enjoyed the work, was respected, was properly compensated, and had good work-life balance probably didn’t exist.”

I envy and applaud these journalists. But I also mourn the talent we’ve lost. And now, as a new generation of journalists armed with a stronger vocabulary to describe burnout and systemic inequity graduates into an industry that’s just as broken as it’s ever been, I wonder if we are on the brink of losing even more talented journalists before they have the chance to get started?

One generation can’t singlehandedly save or ruin an industry, but it’s clear that Gen Z is more politically progressive than past generations, and the journalists I spoke to said their stories are consistent with their peers in their desire to do work that aligns with their values that also doesn’t destroy their minds and bodies.

Maya Bernstein-Schalet graduated from Wesleyan in 2020 and has been working in a restaurant while she applies for journalism jobs and internships. Bernstein-Schalet’s mother is a journalist, and growing up around the industry initially put her off.

“I’m not interested in being a voice for the voiceless,” she said. “I’m not interested in all white male newsrooms.”

She’s happy to keep working her restaurant job, which pays better than most media internships, while she waits for her chance to get a foot in the door.

“A lot of these places at the end of the day, I don’t really want to even work there because they don’t feel like it’s like a professional home for me in terms of my values anymore,” she said. “I just want to make stuff that has meaning in the world.”

For the next issue, I’d love to hear from you: 

If you’re early in your career, is there a line you won’t cross? A type of newsroom or work environment that you’re writing off completely?

And for those of you who have a few more years under your belt: What are the things that have kept you from leaving journalism? What makes it worth it for you to stay?

Email thecohort@poynter.org.

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Alex Sujong Laughlin is the writer and editor of Poynter's The Cohort, a newsletter about gender in media. She's a writer and an award-winning audio…
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