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June 25, 2024, 11:02 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Journalism has become ground zero for the vocation crisis

Journalists — like nurses and teachers — want to do work that’s interesting and socially beneficial. But the industry’s increasing precariousness counterbalances the appeal.

This year has been a grim one for journalism, with layoffs at the Los Angeles Times, Time magazine, NBC News, Forbes, National Geographic, Business Insider and Sports Illustrated. Further cuts loom in newsrooms across the U.S.

Growing numbers of reporters and editors, tired of waiting for the other shoe to drop, are exiting the profession, citing burnout as the reason for their departure.

When scholars of journalism study the effects of the shrinking press corps, they usually focus on how it hurts civil society. Vast swaths of the country are at risk of becoming “news deserts,” with limited access to reliable local journalism. This state of affairs makes it harder for people to make educated decisions and is linked to reduced political engagement, research shows. What’s more, fewer reporters means less oversight of those wielding political and economic power.

But to me, those concerns — while important — ignore another issue, one that extends well beyond the news industry. As I argue with Sandra Vera-Zambrano in our new book, The Journalist’s Predicament: Difficult Choices in a Declining Profession, fewer people are seeing a life in news as a worthwhile career. This reflects a broader problem — namely, the ways that relentless economic pressures are pushing people away from socially important careers.

Meaning over money

As an occupation, journalism is attractive to many people because they can be paid to do work that’s interesting and socially beneficial. In this regard, it is similar to otherwise very different jobs like nursing, teaching, social work and caregiving.

These are “vocations,” in the sense that sociologist Max Weber described them more than a century ago. Based on strong personal commitments, vocations promise recognition and a sense of self-worth for doing work that’s connected to broader values: healing people, fighting injustice, imparting knowledge, serving the cause of democracy.

While these jobs have never paid especially well, people could get by and raise a family on them. That’s becoming less and less the case.

Across all of these professions, issues with recruitment and retention are so common that the term “crisis” is no longer an exaggeration.

Dreams clash with reality

Journalism, in many ways, represents ground zero for the crisis that confronts contemporary vocations. For one, pay in the industry is stagnant. With a median wage in 2023 of $57,500, journalists’ salaries have not kept pace with inflation or jobs in public relations and corporate communication.

Job security, as ongoing layoffs suggest, is nearly nonexistent. Recent drives to unionize newsrooms have done little to stem losses, and they do nothing at all for the freelancers that constitute a growing share of all journalists — and, for the most part, belong to no union at all.

Inside or outside newsrooms, work typically involves longer hours and more demands. And to what end? In many cases, it’s to perform tasks that aren’t that interesting or socially valuable.

The journalists we spoke to bemoaned the relentless demands to churn out new content for websites and social media feeds. They talked about using multimedia to report on topics that were assigned primarily for their potential to amuse and entertain, rather than to inform or provoke thought. They griped about spending more time sitting at their desks sifting through press releases instead of gathering original reports from the field. And they described fewer and fewer opportunities to pursue stories that are personally interesting and socially valuable.

In this context, it is hardly surprising that many people decide to leave journalism, or avoid a career in it entirely. Jobs in public relations pay substantially more, with a $66,750 median annual wage, and involve fixed hours and more stability.

To be sure, these alternative careers might not promise the same adventure and excitement of journalism. But that also means people in that field are less likely to find themselves frustrated by unmet expectations.

More surprising — and relevant for considering the crisis vocations face more broadly — is the fact that so many people, despite these conditions, nonetheless still find work in journalism appealing. This appeal is not naively held. Surveys regularly show that aspiring journalists are well aware of the troubles confronting the industry. They’re nonetheless still willing to sacrifice better pay and job security for work that allows for self-expression and connects to broader values.

Their persistence, in spite of these conditions, highlights something important about journalism and vocations more broadly: These are careers that provide rewards that cannot be reduced to money.

Creeping disillusionment

The enduring attraction of contemporary vocations clarifies the nature of the crisis. In contrast to older vocations, such as the priesthood, many people still dream of being journalists, nurses and teachers. But people who seek out these vocations today routinely find themselves exhausted and demoralized.

Nurses and caretakers are encouraged to eliminate “inefficiencies” so that the provision of care does not impede their employers’ ability to make money. Teachers are tasked with imparting practical skills to students while becoming more “entrepreneurial” themselves as budgets get slashed. Journalists are asked to produce news that conforms to, rather than challenges, audience expectations. Add in the low pay, and these conditions threaten to reduce the belief that such jobs are worthwhile.

Many of the journalists we spoke to while researching our book find ways to manage the disappointments that come from doing work that stands in tension with what initially drew them. Or they reorient their work to better adapt to the profession’s commercial needs.

The fact that so many persist in the profession — at least for a while — should not distract from the frustrations and dissatisfaction that this produces. At some point, the grip of market forces could erode interest in vocations to such an extent that they disappear altogether. In fact, some vocations today are probably sustained more by their idealized reputations on the silver screen — in films like Spotlight and Dead Poets Society — than they are by the experiences of actual reporters and teachers in 2024.

For the moment — and for the foreseeable future — the more likely development is not disinterest, but a struggle to have a career in these fields. That’s not just a failure of a profession overtaken by commercial considerations. It’s a reflection of a society unable to satisfy its citizens’ basic desires for finding meaning through the work they do.

Matthew Powers is an associate professor of communication at the University of Washington. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license.The Conversation

Illustration via Midjourney.

POSTED     June 25, 2024, 11:02 a.m.
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