For years, journalists and professors have warned young reporters that the industry they were preparing to enter wasn’t the most stable. But even through a decades-long contraction, a steady stream of young people has continued to forge ahead into the field — hopeful that their generation will be the one to reverse the field’s decline.
But a barrage of bad media news to start 2024 is testing the resolve of even the hardiest optimists in journalism education. As students in Boston and beyond openly wonder whether there will be a place for them in journalism, professors are reevaluating how they prepare students for a profession in a seemingly constant state of contraction.
“There is so much variation and fluctuation in news media these days,” said Meg Heckman, an associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University. “We have to teach our students how to navigate that and how to be flexible and versatile.”
In January alone, the Los Angeles Times, Business Insider, and Time magazine were among the newsrooms that laid off journalists. Iconic magazines National Geographic and Sports Illustrated also let go of staff, with labor leaders at Sports Illustrated warning that the publication could shut down entirely. Reporters at Forbes, Conde Nast, the Chicago Tribune, and other newsrooms held walkouts. And The Messenger, a digital news startup that hired 300 staffers and launched in May 2023, shut down after burning through $50 million in investment money.
“When you look at headlines like this, it starts to make you worry — is anything that I do going to be enough?” said Cassandra Dumay, 21, a junior studying journalism at Boston University who is currently working as a State House reporter for MetroWest Daily News as part of the BU Statehouse Program.
The media industry has never really recovered from the internet’s obliteration of the traditional revenue model for newspapers and magazines, which for decades leaned on revenue from print advertising. But the cuts in January highlighted a whole other set of threats to what remains of the industry: the increasing reliance on the largesse of individual billionaires, the cost-slashing practices of private equity firms, for instance, and readers’ apparent fatigue with political news often saturated by stories of social division.
“I would find it unethical to encourage young people — especially those who come from low-income backgrounds — to go into fields where there isn’t a future,” said Megan Greenwell, a freelance journalist who is a program director of the Princeton Summer Journalism Program in New Jersey. “This is something I do check-ins with myself all the time.”
While Greenwell continues to believe there’s a path forward, she and other professors know the current state of the business is bleak, and they don’t shy away from telling their students that it’s not the most steady career choice.
“I’m a Black woman. I was a Black journalist. And so I have to tell them, from my experience, and how my race and gender have influenced that experience,” said Meredith Clark, associate professor of journalism at Northeastern University. “There cannot be an assumption that everything is going to go right or everything is going to go well for you.”
Cuts in the newspaper industry have been particularly damaging to local and regional coverage, which not only weakens the reporting on local institutions and government, but also disrupts the pipeline for talent flowing to larger, national publications.
Heckman sees one bright spot in that area: new, nonprofit newsrooms that are helping to fill gaps left by fallen newspapers and present a new opportunity for young journalists.
“It’s almost kind of a throwback,” said Heckman. “You get your first job at a local weekly newspaper, and then you get a job at a slightly bigger paper and then a slightly bigger paper.”
She added that while the pipeline is not as strong as it once was, she and other instructors continue to encourage students to start small and work their way up. And while many local and regional newspapers have been struggling financially in recent years, outlets including The Boston Globe and the Star Tribune in Minnesota are profitable, spokespeople for the papers confirmed.
But with opportunities narrowing in the field overall, some students are struggling to justify the age-old tradeoffs of working in the news.
“I definitely want to go into journalism after I graduate,” said Sophia Harris, 20, a junior at Framingham State University and the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper, The Gatepost. “The only thing holding me back is ... the layoffs, high cost of living, now inflation, and that most people, when they start in journalism, they’re not making a ton of money.”
Boston, often referred to as America’s College Town because of its heavy presence of universities, has a sizable presence in journalism education. Journalism and communications programs at BU, Northeastern, Emerson, and other colleges are home to hundreds of students.
One argument that these programs may have to fall back on if the number of journalism jobs continues to decline: reporting skills are applicable to many other careers.
Tyler daRosa, 25, left his job as an anchor and reporter at a West Virginia news station to move back to Braintree and be closer to family. He now works as a health care recruiter and says his experience working as a professional reporter has helped him excel in his new job.
“You learn to talk to people one on one and ask those open-ended questions,” daRosa said.
Professors also tell their students from the outset that they should think broadly about how they can use the skills they learn in media courses.
“You need writing everywhere,” said Zhao Peng, an assistant professor of journalism at Emerson College, who added that communication skills, interviewing, and video editing are important for many other professions. Additionally, she is trying to teach her students that artificial intelligence — widely seen as a threat to jobs because of its ability to spin up whole paragraphs of mostly coherent writing — can also be a tool in journalism.
“Journalism students can spend effort and time on cultivating skills that can make them more adaptive to this AI environment,” she said.
Professors say that young reporters who do want to go into journalism should consider non-mainstream outlets. In addition to new local outlets, that also includes trade publications and other specialized outlets that have hefty subscription costs. Those outlets also tend to pay better than traditional newspapers, magazines, and many local organizations.
While that’s a good trend for reporters, the reliance on paywalls — also a factor at mainstream publications including The Boston Globe — might be a matter of concern to the public.
“The industry is going to face an increasing challenge of how to make sure that its product does not narrowly reflect the interests of those customers who can afford to pay,” said Richard Tofel, former president of the nonprofit news organization ProPublica.
That problem, and the graveyard of failed newsrooms over the past few years, means that younger journalists may need to have a more advanced understanding of how the news business works. Some of that education falls to journalism professors.
“We challenge our students to try to be part of the solution whenever they can,” Heckman said.
That doesn’t mean young reporters should shoulder the entire responsibility, Heckman added. “It is absolutely not realistic or even appropriate to put the burden of solving the local news crisis on a bunch of new graduates,” she added.
Still, having a good understanding of the news business is helpful for their careers and the profession at large. And many young journalists are still willing to take up the charge.
“I think that this is what I might have been put on the planet to do,” said Dumay.