In 2016, Matthew Gerring quit his full-time job as a software engineer, intent on carving out a career in journalism.
Four years into freelancing, the pandemic hit. And that’s when he started to question his change in career.
At that point, Gerring was working part-time at Hoodline, a local news site covering the Bay Area, where he had been editing and copyediting stories since July 2019. The job got more intense after the pandemic started, but he didn’t mind. He had walked away from software engineering because he had thought he could do more good in journalism.
“In spite of being more well-served than some places that you could call a news desert, our local situation is still not good,” Gerring said. “So getting to work for anybody in local news — invaluable. And being able to have input into what we cover and how we cover it seemed like an important opportunity to try to take.”
As the pandemic raged across the country, it took newsrooms down with it. Dozens of newspapers stopped their presses, and thousands of journalists lost their jobs. The industry had been struggling for years at that point, but the pandemic hastened its decline. Gerring started to grow disillusioned.
“I had been having conversations with a lot of friends about whether continuing to pursue journalism was even worth it given the relatively low pay, the instability of the work,” Gerring said. “All the news about journalism was bad last year. All you ever heard about was people losing their jobs.”
Things at Hoodline were not going well either. During the year and a half that Gerring worked there, the company was sold and acquired two different times — first by Nextdoor in fall 2019, then by Impress3 Media in fall 2020.
“From the time I came on to the time I left, the company was just constantly in transition,” Gerring said.
Last fall, around the time when Impress3 Media bought Hoodline, Gerring got the call from his boss — he was being let go. Given all the changes at the company, he wasn’t completely surprised. His boss had warned him earlier that he likely would not be able to keep his job.
With that in mind, Gerring had actually been planning to quit Hoodline. But first, he wanted to finish a project on police data that he’d been working on. During his time editing at Hoodline, he had noticed that writers would use police data out of context to put together the site’s police blotter, which was “effectively just a listing of the most salacious crimes.”
That approach, Gerring said, didn’t benefit anybody. He wanted Hoodline’s readers to understand what was happening in the city, and the police blotter lacked the necessary context and analysis to do that. Gerring decided to create training materials to improve writers’ data literacy skills and teach them to better handle police data, but he was let go before he could conduct the trainings.
“It was a huge letdown because I wanted to at the very least make some kind of impact before taking a break,” Gerring said. “I sort of had the rug pulled out from under me, and it just sort of confirmed my decision to stop trying to push the rock up the hill.”
Gerring applied to a couple more journalism jobs, but when he received rejections, he decided to leave the industry. He had spent the last four years working temporary jobs at places that didn’t seem to value his work. One example: Gerring had worked for CityLab as a contractor in fall 2019. Bloomberg bought the site from The Atlantic in December 2019, initiating a round of layoffs, and some of Gerring’s work was lost when CityLab changed content management systems.
“That’s just happened over and over and over again,” Gerring said. “It’s clearly not an industry that cares about the people who work in it.”
So he returned to software engineering, going back to Genability, the clean energy software company where he had worked before trying to break into journalism. Gerring works full-time there, creating presentations and analyzing data to explain to customers the ins and outs of the company’s tools and the energy industry.
As a journalist, some of Gerring’s work had touched on climate change and technology. He had hoped his reporting would help people better understand these issues — and the world around them. But over the past year, he started to question whether that approach worked. Now, he wants to work directly with companies focused on climate change.
“I’m not sure whether the media is capable of moving people to action on this stuff,” Gerring said. “What I want to do instead is try to work in places where I can get my hands on the problem directly, where, like, maybe it doesn’t matter what public opinion is as much and just try to do the work.”
Journalism is still important to Gerring, and he may freelance or self-publish in the future. But he doesn’t expect to be able to financially support himself in the industry. Gerring grew up in a rural area, attended a state school and was raised by parents who didn’t go to college — experiences that he said make him an exception among journalists. He couldn’t afford to keep chasing journalism jobs.
In fact, the reason he was able to start freelancing in the first place was his work at Genability. Gerring had spent two years there before freelancing, saving up money, and those savings were the only thing that enabled the freelance work he is proudest of.
“I think that there’s underlying patterns about who gets to stay in journalism, who can afford it and who can’t. And I think that the industry really, really, really needs to talk about that,” Gerring said. “Because the more that journalism becomes a prestige profession, the more it alters who stuff gets written for, who the presumed audience is and who we think we’re helping. And I think that’s a huge problem.”
This story is part of a series, Some Personal News, that shares experiences of people who were laid off from their journalism jobs or left the news during the pandemic. We know thousands of people lost their jobs last year, and want to capture the stories of journalists, printing plant employees, ad sales people, news researchers and anyone else whose employment by newsrooms ended or was altered because of the pandemic. You can tell us your story here.