News reporter — that’s just about the worst job you can have, right? According to one career site, it ranks dead last, behind pest-control worker and logger. The pay is paltry, the opportunities few and the prospects for advancement dim.
But here they come: the fresh-faced graduates of journalism, media and communications schools, emerging into a brave new workforce where message bots have replaced glue pots, where truth is distorted, facts undervalued, and where success sometimes seems reduced to a numbers game about who gets the most clicks. Oh, yes, and into a world where press freedoms are under siege and where many newsrooms have been cut by half.
Although I’m acutely aware of the troubled landscape, and I don’t dismiss the problems, I also don’t buy the gloom and doom. And I would never discourage any talented and driven young person from entering the fray, with eyes wide open.
You see, I know more than my share of newly minted journalists, and they are some of the smartest — and yes, luckiest — people I know.
A few examples: There’s my daughter’s college roommate, who writes for the tech site Gizmodo in Manhattan. There’s my nephew, who covers health care for the Hill newspaper here in Washington. There’s a recent graduate of Columbia University’s journalism school, who now writes from Nepal on StorySouthAsia, a news site she co-founded.
Granted, the journalism world has been turned upside down. The traditional career path has disappeared into the Internet’s maw along with the classified ads that made so much money for newspapers. And the public’s trust in the media is low, especially since many people’s idea of “the media” doesn’t differentiate between the National Enquirer, Facebook, Gawker, the Economist and The Washington Post.
I know far too many skilled journalists who have suffered through buyouts, layoffs, reduced standards and survivor’s guilt to be blase about this. Just this month, the Tampa Tribune was shuttered, after being bought by its longtime competitor, the (excellent) Tampa Bay Times. In the digital-only world, the once high-flying Mashable was laying people off, and even BuzzFeed, according to the Financial Times, was scaling back its revenue projections. And the New York Times is looking hard at how to reduce its newsroom staff to cut costs.
Given all that, how can I describe these 20-something journalists as lucky? It’s this: They have a chance to make a real difference in a high-stakes game. Just look at the political sphere, where the candidates (to varying degrees) may regard facts as fungible, and the electorate doesn’t seem to care.
Rutgers historian David Greenberg makes the case in his 2016 book, “Republic of Spin,” that this problem is far from new, dating to America’s very start and picking up considerable steam in the Nixon-Watergate era. But it surely has reached new depths.
So deep digging, over weeks and months, and rigorous fact-checking in the immediate moment are (sorry to get all civics class here) crucial to the functioning of our democracy.
How to get a cynical public to trust the messenger is another challenge. We need to look hard at the reasons for the lack of trust, and try to counter them. The Media Insight Project’s recent study on trust and the media provides some help, counseling close attention to accuracy, fairness and even technical functionality as ways to recoup what’s been lost. (Only 6 percent of those surveyed have a lot of trust in media, the same rating they give Congress.)
But how many budding journalists will get a chance to do this important work? Aren’t they just churning out endless “shareable” posts, light on reporting and heavy on snark? And are even those jobs available in the shaky media environment?
Sarah Bartlett, dean of the City University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism (where I taught a course last year), is immersed in this world — and she’s optimistic. Four of every five of her school’s graduates are finding work in their field within six months of graduation.
“If they’re talented, they are able to get hired,” she told me. “And because they have the new skills, they are the new leaders in a lot of newsrooms.”
Dose of reality: Around the country, journalism programs are shrinking, and applications are down. But then again, many of the best journalists have never set foot in a journalism class, relying instead on liberal arts educations and on-the-job training, also known as scrambling on deadline in abject fear. As for whether there’s a sustainable way to pay for the expensive business of news gathering in the long run, no one knows for sure.
Bartlett is convinced that the work is not only available — at least for the most talented and ambitious — but that it’s also greatly needed. What’s more, it can be tremendous fun.
“It’s the only thing I ever wanted to do,” she told me. Many of her students feel the same way, and so do I. That’s why I’ll be writing, in this space, about free speech, digital innovation and transformation, media literacy and ethics, and investigative reporting. Is Facebook swallowing journalism whole? How well are the media holding the presidential candidates accountable? Has local investigative reporting been lost? How does diversity affect news coverage? How will virtual reality and artificial intelligence change our culture?
I’m especially drawn to the need for journalism that is transparent, honest, aggressive and deep, using all the new tools and with a great sense of openness on how to present the work to an ever-more-digital audience.
As for the question of just how imprudent you need to be to get into this radically transformed business, I’ll say this much: Given the challenges, what’s needed most are journalists — of every age — who are willing to help figure out the future with passion, smarts and integrity.
Yes, we’ve got some big problems, but it’s far from crazy to try to be part of the solution.
For more by Margaret Sullivan, visit wapo.st/sullivan.