July 12, 2023

It seems like a particularly scary time to enter journalism. While the common rejoinder might be to say it’s always been, something about this era feels different. We’ve seen almost 20 years of layoffs and closures and now we’re even witnessing the demise of the organizations we once turned to for hope.

For aspiring and early-career journalists, is this the breaking point?

The last year has brought shutdowns to news organizations once thought to be the future of the industry and layoffs to even the invincible-seeming national behemoths. In January, The Washington Post laid off 20 newsroom employees. Vox Media laid off about 130 people — roughly 7% of its employees. The following month, Gawker, the second iteration of its more famous predecessor, was closed by Bustle Digital Group. Soon after, NPR said it would lay off about 10% of its staff. And by April, BuzzFeed, once the golden child of new media, laid off 15% of its staff and closed its entire news division. And yet more local newspapers shut down; a 2022 report found that more than 360 had closed since 2019.

To put this all in context, freelance writer and culture critic Cyrena Touros tweeted out in late April a list of journalism layoffs from 2023, noting that there were already too many to fit into one Notes app screenshot. Taken as a whole, it’s sobering.

The news industry has always inspired a unique breed of devotion in its practitioners, even in its most unstable moments. There’s only so much one can take of watching the titans of the industry fall before the inevitable question: Is journalism even for me?

Poynter spoke with a half dozen college-age and early-career journalists to check in. Each of them maintained a healthy dose of concern about journalism’s future while professing their desire to pursue a career in it — for now.

Jaden Edison, 24, justice reporter for The Connecticut Mirror

Jaden Edison. (Courtesy)

Jaden Edison didn’t enter college with a concrete idea of what journalists actually did. In fact, he had a very specific perception of the industry — as sportscasters on ESPN. But after starting at Texas State University’s electronic media program, he applied to the school’s student newspaper.

“The folks there were super intellectual people who had expanded worldviews and really strong ideas and an understanding of history,” he said. “It put me on this path of wanting to learn more about the world and the communities that we live in.”

While he may have loved this ideal of journalism, Edison was quickly confronted with its reality as he watched his friends from the student paper graduate and get jobs that he didn’t think matched their skill. As he saw their futures play out, he wondered about his own. He was in the midst of applying to journalism opportunities for the summer after his graduation. And while he was a finalist for two or three, he ultimately found himself empty-handed. Through luck and a longtime connection, Edison was able to secure an internship at Poynter. At the same time, he decided to apply to master’s in journalism programs, thinking that the added network might give him a leg up in the job search.

“For me, it was a strategic thing,” he said. “I didn’t want to be boxed out of these certain opportunities.”

Now, he’s working as a justice reporter at The Connecticut Mirror, a nonprofit news organization. His recent clips include a story on a historic settlement in a police misconduct case, legislative changes on parole eligibility and a policy debate about the end of routine strip searches in prison.

“I’m on the path now to doing some of the things that I sought out to do,” he said.

Edison became a reporter not just for the love of the craft but for a mission: to have a real impact on Black communities. Perhaps more now than ever, he feels his work is rooted in that commitment. But the industry doesn’t always make that easy. Though the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police touched off a reckoning, three years later, we’re still having many of the same conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion, Edison said.

“You have the same people over and over again who are in newsrooms who are speaking up, who are bringing forth valid ideas and proposals and falling upon the ears of people who don’t want to listen or don’t understand,” he said.

There’s also the financials. Earlier this month, the Los Angeles Times announced that it was eliminating 74 newsroom positions. A colleague reminded Edison to focus on why he chose journalism. But, as he said, “Nobody signed up for a lot of the obstacles we’re facing now.”

He’s clear-eyed about what the future may hold. Some of the friends who mentored him have already left the industry. And while he hopes to not have to make the decision, he’s prepared to find another profession that could match many of journalism’s values — make a difference and expand his worldview — while perhaps lacking some of the same downsides.

“It truly does worry me in a way,” Edison said. “But at the same time, I also find some comfort — and I use that term lightly — that if things do turn for the worse, there are other things out there where I may be able to have the same level of impact.”

McKenna Cardona, Indiana University, 20

McKenna Cardona. (Courtesy)

McKenna Cardona grew up in a small town in Indiana, far away from the visible influence of journalism. What she loved — and what came naturally to her — was writing.

“Anytime that I’m writing,” she said, “I’m probably the happiest.”

But journalism found her. In her junior year of high school, she received an invitation from the Washington Journalism and Media Conference, held by George Mason University. And while she wasn’t able to attend, it lit an idea inside of her: Perhaps journalism was a way to combine her interests, to tell the stories not normally told, to hear the voices of those not normally heard.

Cardona is going into her junior year at Indiana University’s Media School — receiving a bachelor’s degree in journalism with a concentration in public relations, but she still hopes to pursue a career in journalism. She’s already getting a taste of the day-to-day routine in her role as a communications assistant for the media school’s communications team. She spends her days writing briefs, alumni news and stories on faculty and staff — she calls it “journalism in a looser form.”

It’s not the future of the industry that keeps Cardona up at night. After all, she thinks it will always exist in some way. She just imagines that reporters will have to be more digitally savvy than ever before. No longer will an article suffice. Journalists will have to shoot photos, record audio, turn content into an easily digestible video for social media and market it all at large. In reality, they have been asked to do this for quite some time — it’s just that these requests are becoming increasingly mandatory.

Acquiring and maintaining all these digital skills doesn’t worry Cardona. It excites her. But she does wonder how the trend of digital, bite-size news, compiled quickly and with few fact-checking stopgaps, contributes to misinformation.

“I don’t want to go out and contribute to that,” she said. “I feel like we’re on that bridge — journalism isn’t present enough in other formats, so it’s very easy to spread misinformation.”

But another hurdle remains: getting a professional internship. It’s a classic Catch-22 of the industry: You can’t get an internship before you’ve had another internship. And even when you do, what happens if that organization shutters, eliminates its website and takes with it all of your hard-earned clips?

Still, Cardona is enthusiastic about her future in the industry.

“As long as I get to learn new things and move forward, I’m going to be OK,” she said. “I’m positive I will have a place. And if not, then I guess I will have to make one.”

Anna Armstrong, University of California, Berkeley, 21, rising senior

Anna Armstrong. (Courtesy)

The internship dilemma has marked Anna Armstrong’s career. As the managing editor of University of California, Berkeley’s student newspaper, The Daily Californian, she would seem to be in good shape. But there are so many qualified students and only so many openings.

“It feels nearly impossible to get your foot in the door and get an internship,” Armstrong said. “… And it really does feel like when a publication is struggling financially that the internship programs are either the first to be cut or the first to be really downsized.”

Armstrong’s love for journalism started in high school, where she was editor-in-chief of her school’s newspaper. In the summer after her freshman year of college, she opted to enter the school’s undergraduate minor in journalism. The university doesn’t currently have a major.

In conversation, Armstrong oscillates between a jubilant enthusiasm for journalism — “I get really energized when I meet with career journalists and think, ‘This is definitely what I want to do with my life’” — and a tempered cynicism spurred by the realities of the industry — “The field just kind of feels like it’s shrinking. It feels like you have to squeeze your way in there and it’s not totally clear how to do it.”

Armstrong plans to spend her senior year applying to journalism internships, fellowships and graduate school. She’s also eyeing public policy programs and still talking about law school with her parents.

“I haven’t been able to really narrow in and give journalism all of the attention that I want,” she said. “It doesn’t feel totally safe to (do so) right now.”

Even if she does manage to find an opportunity upon graduation, Armstrong worries about the future. Publications seem to be getting smaller and offering fewer job options. And if she does end up in a major city, which seems like an inevitable at this point, an entry-level job with a salary of $40,000 to $60,000 won’t cut it in places like the nearby Bay Area.

Still, there is something about the job that continues to attract her.

“It is really scary, but I also feel like journalism has never been more important,” she said. “Even when I’m feeling really down and stressed, I always remind myself that journalists play this really vital role in a free society.”

Avery Lotz, University of Florida, 22, CNN news associate

Avery Lotz. (Courtesy)

By the time Avery Lotz had almost finished her undergraduate degree in journalism, she was starting to wonder if an actual job in the field would be relegated to the status of childhood dream.

This, despite all her marked success on paper: Lotz was a newsgathering intern on the justice beat for CNN’s Washington, D.C., bureau after her junior year. Her five-part series on unintentional shootings was a finalist for a top college journalism award.

“It felt very disheartening opening my computer and seeing the news that Buzzfeed News is shutting down, that the companies you want to work for are doing layoffs,” she said. “While I’ll always have confidence in the power of storytelling and the power and importance of journalism, sometimes it’s hard to have confidence in the industry as a whole.”

Still, Lotz might be considered one of the lucky ones. In July, she will start a role as a news associate at CNN. But instead of breathing a sigh of relief, she expresses a type of survivor’s guilt. She sees some of her talented peers still searching for jobs. It feels like that could have been any one of them. And it still could.

“It felt so difficult just to get this one job that the idea of then having to find another seems absolutely impossible,” she said.

Lotz sees a path outside of journalism; one that sometimes looks easier. Her friends who work corporate communications jobs have more traditional 9-to-5 lifestyles, higher salaries and job security. In turn, she wonders if she’ll ever be able to manage a full-time journalism career and a personal life.

“Journalism is a very all-consuming industry,” she said. “I worry that I’ll look around and my life around journalism has crumbled.”

As a young woman in the industry, Lotz is also understandably preoccupied with safety. There is an inherent risk in meeting unknown sources in unknown places. And it’s not just in person. Almost 73% of female journalists reported experiencing online violence in their roles, according to a UNESCO-IFJ survey.

But for these young journalists, there’s always an “and yet.”

“Journalism is like a vocation — you have to do this,” Lotz said. “If you have the skills and you have the drive and energy to do it, who is going to tell these stories if we don’t?”

Sofi Zeman, 21, University of Missouri graduate

Sofi Zeman. (Maya Bell)

Come July, 21-year-old Sofi Zeman will start a job as a Report for America corps member at the Uvalde Leader-News, in the community where 19 children and two adults were killed in a school shooting more than a year ago.

“I’m 21 years old, so to be stepping into that is daunting,” she said. “But I’m an education reporter, I love children, I love learning, so it’s the right thing to do for me right now.”

Zeman graduated in May from the University of Missouri’s Missouri School of Journalism. From a young age, she loved writing and was always attracted to community news coverage and local newspapers. In high school, she worked at her hometown newspaper in Belvidere, Illinois, and found herself at home in the niche of small local newsrooms.

As she started journalism school, she was perhaps more optimistic about her professional future. But as she’s watched classmates not get jobs and the local news industry dwindling, that hopefulness has turned into cynicism.

“My identity as a reporter, per se, is very deeply ingrained in who I am,” she said. “… It’s rare to find a journalist who isn’t so passionate about what they’re doing, and I think that’s beautiful. It leads to very deep investment, which makes all of the job stuff so much more painful.”

Allyssa Capri, 29, Chicago, freelance pop culture writer

Allysa Capri. (Courtesy)

Allyssa Capri is a bit older than the other writers in this report. She graduated from DePaul University in 2016 with a degree in journalism. But her job search didn’t pan out, so she decided to shelve the idea of a full-time career in the industry, instead hoping to pursue freelance.

For three years, Capri wrote on the side. She began as a blogger about women’s wrestling and eventually worked her way to culture, writing weekly TV recaps. But in 2020, she had a “come-to-Jesus” moment: She was laid off from her day job and decided that it was time to really put her effort into journalism.

That hasn’t quite materialized, in large part because it hasn’t felt economically viable.

“I’m trying to write when I have ideas, because I don’t have that many connections in the industry and because so many of these smaller publications are shutting down,” Capri said. “It’s kind of hard for me to make this an actual stream of income, so I have a day job to pay my bills, so I can feed myself and my child and I can write on the side.”

When Capri graduated, she had aspirations of entering a world she calls rich with culture journalism. But over the years, she’s seen that falter. Last year, she published one of the pieces she’s proudest of, on accessibility features in video games, for Catapult, an online literary and narrative magazine. Capri had mulled over the piece for months, making it her goal to publish it before the birth of her child. Her cold pitch email to an editor was enough to seal the deal, culminating in the longest-form article she’d ever written. She planned to cultivate a relationship with the editor there and try to write more stories. But in February, the entire magazine shut down.

“It’s really disheartening — these are publications that are more attainable to young writers and unrefined writers that don’t have a lot behind them but maybe have great ideas,” Capri said. “It isn’t lost on me as well that often those writers are BIPOC, women and queer people.”

Capri is resolved to continue but wonders whether the industry is becoming less open to mentoring and nurturing new writers. She finds it counterintuitive.

“At a certain point, the well is going to run dry. Maybe they’ll replace us with AI,” she said. “All I can say is, I’m going to keep trying.”

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Elizabeth Djinis is a writer based in St. Petersburg, Florida. Follow her on Twitter at @djinisinabottle or email her at elizabeth@grafonwritingco.com.
Elizabeth Djinis

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