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Journalism has become ground zero for the vocation crisis
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Feb. 8, 2022, 7:02 a.m.

What does the career path look like for today’s local journalists?

Plus: How newsroom ideology affects slant in the news, why burned-out/overworked reporters are quitting — and is the inverted pyramid still the way to tell stories online?

Editor’s note: Longtime Nieman Lab readers know the bylines of Mark Coddington and Seth Lewis. Mark wrote the weekly This Week in Review column for us from 2010 to 2014; Seth’s written for us off and on since 2010. Together they’ve launched a monthly newsletter on recent academic research around journalism. It’s called RQ1 and we’re happy to bring each issue to you here at Nieman Lab.

A bleak look at journalism careers in one U.S. city

It’s been almost an entire generation since the recession of the late 2000s helped accelerate a years-long flood of layoffs and cuts across the news industry. The old archetypal journalism career of steadily moving up to more prestigious beats and organizations is so far gone that even stating that it’s long gone has itself become a truism.

But what’s replaced it? What does the typical journalistic career look like now? Is there one? We know, of course, that some journalists are leaving the profession while others are continuing to forge on and finding success. But how many are in each group, and how are those divergent trajectories reflecting (or potentially reshaping) the news industry’s longstanding inequities around race and gender?

Those are a pertinent (and often personal) set of questions for anyone trying to make their way in the news industry, as well as those training new journalists to enter the field. In a new study in the journal Journalism Studies, the University of Washington’s Matthew Powers gives us some initial answers: At least in the medium term, the typical local journalism career is likely to be more characterized by inertia or departure than advancement, especially for women and journalists of color.

Powers examined the career trajectories of local journalists in Seattle over six years — 2015-2021, a relatively stable time for journalism in the city on the macro level. Using publicly available information, he put together a database of every local non-freelance journalist in Seattle he could find (430 in total) in 2015, then determined their professional status in 2021, to find out whether they had advanced, maintained their current professional level, declined, or left the industry. He particularly examined differences across race and ethnicity, gender, education levels, years of experience, medium, and type of work.

His top-line numbers were striking: Nearly 40% had the same job after six years, while about 30% had left the news industry entirely. Just 16%, by contrast, had advanced in their careers within journalism. (About 3% had declined, and about 10% had retired or died.) The differences along gender and race/ethnicity lines were sadly unsurprising: White journalists and men were more likely to stay in their jobs, while women and journalists of color were more likely to leave the industry.

The rates of journalists advancing were similar across gender and race/ethnicity groups. Notably, however, the women and journalists of color who advanced were more likely to advance through less prestigious beats and through positions of “functional specialization” — data, analytics, audience work, and copy editing.

Journalists with graduate education or degrees from prestigious universities were less likely to maintain their current jobs — more likely, instead, to either advance or leave the industry entirely. And early-career journalists left the industry at an alarmingly high rate: More than 70% of those with fewer than 10 years of experience were gone within the six-year sample. (The same went for half of those at online-only news organizations.)

Powers’ data, of course, is descriptive — we can’t determine from it why the trends it indicated occurred as they did. Still, it paints an arresting (if unsurprising) picture of what the trajectory of journalistic careers looks like in one mid-sized local journalism ecosystem. Many of the less experienced journalists are on their way out of the industry altogether, and the more experienced ones are simply maintaining their current status, rather than advancing in the medium term.

For women and journalists of color, their picture broadly mirrors the larger one but is more bracing: In both groups, more people were out of the industry within six years than maintained their current professional level. And when they advanced, it was through more marginalized channels than their white male counterparts. Powers concludes by positing that perhaps “the expansion of journalism to include historically-marginalized groups might also sort those individuals into less prestigious and potentially more precarious jobs.” Instead of generally invoking the notion of a “crisis” in journalism, Powers says, we need to ask more directly, “crisis for whom?”

An RQ1 read: News for the Rich, White, and Blue by Nikki Usher

This is the first of what we hope will be occasional summaries by RQ1 readers of notable recent books on news and journalism. Our first summary is from Jihii Jolly, who is a journalist and currently writes the newsletter Time Spent. If there’s a recent research-oriented book on news or journalism that you’d like to write about, let us know!

Journalism faces an extraordinary predicament, one threatening the democratic project itself, according to Nikki Usher’s extensive analysis of the decline of metropolitan newspapers in News for the Rich, White, and Blue: How Place and Power Distort American Journalism, based on 13 years of fieldwork.

National journalism cannot tell the stories of place as well or as often as local news media, and yet, American political power is tied to geography.

Originally imagined as a book about news buildings and the power they hold, Usher’s News for the Rich, White, and Blue turned into a far more alarming and extensive interrogation of how the loss of place-based journalism has undermined trust in journalism and exacerbated inequality in America.

She begins by exposing the falsely nostalgic view that local news has served democracy, outlining the consequences of losing — or never having — adequate local journalism, and then analyzes in great detail how the financial constraints faced by metropolitan papers has worsened these pre-existing structural challenges.

Namely, last-ditch efforts to build a digital subscription base has led to a journalism that serves predominantly rich, white, and blue (liberal) readers, one in which D.C. journalism is deeply disconnected from the rest of the United States and the audiences of likely national survivors like the New York Times are increasingly global, placeless, and elite. On top of this, she warns, well-intentioned news philanthropy going to journalism that can no longer be supported by the market could further undermine trust in quality journalism.

Ultimately, Usher lands on a series of proposals for journalism’s future, which reinstitute place as the building block of identity and power in the United States, and which unbundle the core functions of journalism to allow civic information to serve more Americans where they are.

In her words: “We get the democracy we deserve based on the core functions we demand from the news media.”

Research roundup

“Does the ideology of the newsroom affect the provision of media slant?” By Hans J. G. Hassell, Matthew R. Miles, and Kevin Reuning, in Political Communication.

Ask people what they think about the news media, and almost inevitably you will hear talk about political bias — the idea that news organizations, including the individual journalists working for them, are often too slanted in their partisan judgments to offer fair coverage. This is a well-worn line of critique.

Yet, as these authors note, while the public often criticizes the media for such perceived bias in news coverage, most of the research on this topic has more often focused on the consumer demand for ideological news (think: Fox News giving conservatives what they want), or it has looked at structural factors like media ownership or editorial boards — rather than taking a closer look at the newsroom and the ideology of journalists in it.

In that sense, Hassell and team bring a fresh perspective. They develop a new measure of the ideology of newspapers based on a large survey of U.S. political journalists in which the journalists are asked to place their own newspaper on an ideological scale in comparison to seven nationally known media organizations (The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post,, MSNBC, Fox News, and CNN). They find that newsroom ideology has a substantial impact on the ideological lean in news coverage, even after accounting for the slant that certain audiences may prefer.

“Our results show that newspaper content is not solely a reflection of consumer demand,” they write. “The ideological norms of the newsroom shape the responsiveness of newspapers to the ideological content demands of their readership.”

Also, in response to the idea that journalists are irredeemably biased (and presumably in a liberal direction), the study notes this in its conclusion: “Our findings show that the vast majority of newspapers are politically moderate relative to cable and national media. Importantly, we find that in its presently constituted state, very few outlets among the larger set of newspapers in the United States are clearly identifiable as conservative or liberal.”

“‘Why I quit journalism’: Former journalists’ advice giving as a way to regain control.” By Nick Mathews, Valérie Bélair-Gagnon, and Matt Carlson, in Journalism.
Amid so much talk about the Great Resignation among U.S. workers, and given the findings that we highlighted about how many Seattle journalists leave the profession, it’s useful to consider: Why do journalists quit their jobs? Or, more to the point, what do journalists say about the decision when they choose to step away from journalism, and what might that reveal about the state of working in the profession today?

This study by Matthews and colleagues offers an important clue by examining 27 first-person, public-facing narratives by former journalists. It provides an update, in a sense, to a 2010 study by Nikki Usher that examined how laid-off journalists and others leaving the fold said “goodbye to the news” in their departing memos — and what that indicated about the enduring quality of news values in a new media world that was unfolding at that time. (Full disclosure: Seth has ongoing research collaborations with these authors, including the recently published book News After Trump led by Matt Carlson.)

Now, in this 2022 study, what emerges is a sobering picture of journalists feeling powerless, stuck, and burned out as they give out advice on their way out the door. These individuals originally saw journalism as a dream job and a path to empower people in their communities — but they became haunted by ceaseless demands of market pressures and work that never seemed to end. “This study,” the authors conclude, “shows that the lack of institutional support on work-life balance and mental health paired with the institutional demands to be ‘all in’ and always-on, and the consequential lack of professional–personal life balance, led journalists to have a sense of disconnection from both their personal and professional lives.”

No wonder they’re quitting.

“Social campaigns to social change? Sexual violence framing in U.S. news before and after #metoo.” By Selina Noetzel, Maria F. Mussalem Gentile, Gianna Lowery, Sona Zemanova, Sophie Lecheler, and Christina Peter, in Journalism.

In October 2017, in the wake of allegations of widespread sexual abuse by Harvey Weinstein, actress Alyssa Milano posted on Twitter, “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” The #metoo hashtag spread rapidly and a global movement against sexual violence was born, prompting months of extensive media coverage.

All of which raises the question: How did journalists frame sexual violence in the news before and after the movement went viral?

Noetzel and colleagues conducted a quantitative content analysis of news articles in four U.S. newspapers, covering a period of one year before and one year after the #metoo tweet. They found a discernible change, as news accounts moved away from “straightforward, single-incident reports to broader discussions.”

While some research suggests that news stories tend to focus on individual blame in cases of sexual abuse, this study finds little presence of victim-blaming in the news before or after the MeToo movement began. “Rather, blame placed upon perpetrators was present in all frames and increased after #metoo.”

While it’s a positive development that the study did not find victim-focused blame, the authors acknowledged that an increased emphasis on perpetrator-focused blame may foster an “individualization” of the sexual violence problem, rather than situating it more squarely as a societal-level concern.

“‘The boundaries are blurry…’: How comment moderators in Germany see and respond to hate comments.” By Sünje Paasch-Colberg and Christian Strippel, in Journalism Studies.

“Comment sections are poison,” The Guardian declared in 2014 — and many would argue that little has changed since that time. The commenting sections on many news sites (and on discussion boards and elsewhere online) too often seem to devolve into slugfests of incivility, toxicity, and name-calling. While researchers for years now have analyzed content moderation strategies and best practices for dealing with unruly commenters — an ongoing challenge for many news organizations, not to mention social media providers — there has been little study of what types of comments are actually considered a problem by moderators: “that is, which working definitions of hate comments guide moderation decisions in newsrooms.”

Drawing on interviews with content moderators in Germany, this study finds there is a strong agreement on extreme cases of hateful comments — which are, in fact, quite rare, they say — but it’s in the more common and troublesome “gray area” where things quickly become complicated. Different moderators coming from different organizational environments or backgrounds struggle with comments that blur boundaries of aggression by using irony, word play, rhetorical questions, or “disparaging modifications of people’s names.”

What factors seem to influence how differently content moderators discern hate in comments? They range from individual differences in sensitivity to the types of software being used to moderate to the ways that political orientation, business models, and target audiences seem to influence moderation choices — not to mention matters of legislation and cultural-historical context (e.g., surrounding the case of Holocaust denial).

In short, at a time when many believe automation can solve the problem of hateful comments, this study suggests we still have much to learn about how different people in different contexts struggle to define and moderate away incivility in the muddy middle of “gray areas.”

“Innovating online journalism: New ways of storytelling.” By Shirish Kulkarni, Richard Thomas, Marlen Komorowski, and Justin Lewis, in Journalism Practice.

Finally, we close by considering whether the tried-and-true “inverted pyramid” model of news writing is, in fact, the most effective means of conveying information online. Digital media offer so many interactive opportunities to tell stories, after all, and younger audiences seemed less inclined to traditional-sounding news. So is the inverted pyramid structure — arranging facts in descending order of importance — still the best way to go?

This study used workshops and expert consultations to develop a series of new prototypes for online news storytelling, and then tested these new approaches in an audience survey of 1,268 people.

The authors found that “linear forms of storytelling — rarely used in news — are more effective in transferring knowledge to news consumers and are seen as more engaging, convenient and useful than the traditional inverted pyramid.” They offer and describe five key principles for building more effective online stories, with utmost emphasis on narrative — telling a story linearly rather than in an inverted-pyramid structure that some focus group participants found to be “confusing” and “backward.”

Additionally, the authors noted that their test audiences were surprisingly quick to embrace the non-pyramid approach to news. “The fact that users responded immediately to some of these new formats is … indicative of their potential,” Kulkarni and colleagues write. “Even in the brief time available to craft new forms of storytelling, some of our prototypes performed significantly better than the classic, tried and tested pyramid version.”

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash.

POSTED     Feb. 8, 2022, 7:02 a.m.
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